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The Malachite Casket

2006-07-14 00:01

  Nastasya, Stepan's widow, was left the malachite casket with every kind of women's ornaments in it. There were rings and earrings and all sorts. The Mistress of the Copper Mountain herself had given it to Stepan before he married.

  Nastasya had grown up an orphan, she wasn't used to such rich things, and she didn't like making a lot of show either. At first, when Stepan was alive, she used something to put on this or that. But she never felt easy in them. She'd put on a ring, you'd say it fitted just right, neither to tight nor too loose, but when she'd go to church in it or to visit friends, her finger would start aching as if it was pinched and the end would even turn quite blue. If she put on the earrings it was worse still. They'd pull and pull on her ears till the lobes were all swollen. Yet if you picked them up they didn't seem any heavier than the ones she always wore. The necklace, six or seven strands of it, she only tried on. It felt like ice round her neck and never got any warmer. And anyway, she was ashamed to let folks see her in a thing like that. “Look at her, all decked out like a tsarina, they'd say.

  Stepan didn't try to make her wear them, either. He even said once: “Better put them away, last misfortunate befall.”

  So Nastasya put the casket down at the very bottom of her chest, the one where she kept her store of homespun and things of that sort.

  When Stepan died and they saw the stones in his hand, it happened that Nastasya showed the casket to some folks. But that man who knew about all those things, the one who told them what Stepan's stones were, they say he warned Nastasya, quite-like: “Mind out, see ye don't sell that casket for naught. It's worth many a thousand.”

  He'd got learning, that man, and he was free, too. Once he'd been foreman at the mine, but they took him off it. He was too easy on the men. Well, and he liked his glass, as well. Always in the tavern, he was though I should speak no ill of the dead. But in all else - a real good man. He could write a petition or mark off sections, and he made a proper job of it, not like some. Our folks would always treat him to a glass on holidays, whoever else might be left out. He lived like that in our village till he died. The people kept him going.

  Nastasya had heard from her husband that the foreman was an honest man with a good head on him, the only trouble was the drink. And she heeded what he said.

  “So be it,” she said, “I'll keep it for a rainy day.” And she put the casket back in its old place.

  They buried Stepan and mourned forty days, all right and proper. Nastasya was a fine, comely woman, and well off, so suitors soon started sending matchmakers. But she'd got plenty of sense.

  “A second, though he's good as gold, still he's but a stepfather to the children.”

  So after a time they let her alone.

  Stepan had left his family well off, as I say. They had a good solid house, a horse, a cow, everything they needed. Nastasya was a hard worker, the children were good and obedient. So they'd little to fret them.

  They went on like that for a year, and another, and a third, and then they found they were getting a bit poorer. After all, you couldn't expect a woman with small children to farm real well. And they needed a bit of money now and then, too. To buy salt and such like.

  Then Stepan's family started pestering Nastasya: “Sell the casket. What d'ye want with it? There's all them jewels just lying there doing no good. After all, Tanyushka'll never wear them. Things like that! It's only gentry and merchants buy such like. You can't put them on with our poor clothes. And you could get money for them. It'd give ye a bit of a lift up.”

  They kept nagging and nagging at her like that. And buyers flocked like crows to a bone, merchants all of them. One offered a hundred rubles, another two hundred.

  “We're sorry for your children,' they said, ”we're being kind of ye because you're a poor widow.“

  They thought they'd got hold of a simple village woman they could fool, but they'd caught the wrong bird.

  Nastasya minded what that old foreman had told her, not to let the casket go for naught. And she was loth to part with it, too. After all, it was a gift from Stepan, her dead husband. And then again, there was her little girl, the youngest child. She kept begging and crying: “Mummie, don't sell it! Don't sell it, Mummie! I'll go out and work, I'll be a servant, but keep it for Father's sake!”

  Now, Stepan had left three children. Two were boys, just lads like any others. But the girl, she wasn't like her mother or her father either. Even when Stepan was alive and she was just a babe, folks wondered at her. And not just the maids and wives, but the men too. “Where've ye got her from, Stepan?” they'd say. “Who does she take after? All jimp and pretty, with her dark hair, and then those green eyes! Not like the other maids round our way.”

  Stepan would turn it off with a joke. “Naught to wonder at if she's blackhaired, with her father working underground since he was a little lad. And green eyes - naught strange there either, with all the malachite I've brought up for our Master Turchaninov. I've got her for a remembrance.”

  So he started calling her Remembrance; when he wanted her he'd say: “Come here, my little Remembrance!” And when he bought something for her, it was always green or blue.

  Well, the child grew, and all took note of her. She was like a bright bead dropped from a gay necklace - she stood out, like. And though she was not child to make friends with folks, they all smiled at her. Even cross-grained shrews had a good word to say. A real beauty, she was, everyone liked to look at her. Only her mother sighed.

  “Beauty, aye, but not our kind of beauty. Like a changeling.”

  She took it real hard when Stepan died. She got thin, seemed to waste away till she was nothing but eyes. So one day her mother got the idea of giving her the malachite casket to let her amuse herself with the things in it. She might be little but still she was maid, even when they're children they like to adorn themselves. So Tanyushka tried on this and that, and it was a wonder, whatever she put on, you'd have thought it was made of her. Some of the things, her mother didn't even know what they were for, but she seemed to know everything. And that wasn't all. She kept on saying: “Oh, Mummie, I feel so nice in Father's presents, they are all warm, it's like sitting in the sun and somebody stroking you very, very softly.”

  Now, Nastasya had worn them, and she'd not forgotten how her fingers had got swollen and her ears had hurt and the necklace had been icy cold. And she thought to herself: There's something queer here. Uncanny, it is. So she put the casket away in the chest again. But after that Tanyushka was always at her with “Mummie, let me play with Father's presents.”

  Nastasya wanted to deny her, but she hadn't the heart, so she'd get out the casket, and only warned the child: “See ye don't break aught.”

  When Tanyushka was a bit older she'd get out the casket for herself. Nastasya would take the lads to mow or some other work and leave Tanyushka to mind the house. First, of course, she'd get through the jobs her mother had left her - wash the dishes, shake out the tablecloth, sweep up, feed the hens and she the fire was all right. She'd hurry up and finish, and then get out the casket. There was only one chest left now on top of the bottom one, and it had got real light at that. So Tanyushka could easily move it on to a stool and get the casket out of the bottom chest. Then she'd take out the trinkets, and start trying them on.

  One day a robber came when she was busy with them. Maybe he'd hidden in the garden early, or maybe he'd slipped in some way, for none of the neighbours saw him in the street. He was a stranger, but it looked as if someone had told him everything, when to come and how.

  After Nastasya left, Tanyushka did a few bits of work outside, and went into the house to get the casket. She put on the jeweled headdress and the earrings. And that was when the robbed slipped in. Tanyushka looked round and there stood a man she'd never seen before, with an axe in his hand. It was there own axe, it had been standing in the entry. She had put it in the corner herself after sweeping up. Tanyushka was frightened all right. She just sat there, but that man, he cried out and dropped the axe and clapped both hands over his eyes as if they burned him. “Oh, I'm blinded, on Heavens, I'm blinded,” he groaned and kept rubbing his eyes.

  Tanyushka saw something had happened to him, so she plucked up courage.

  “What have ye come for,” she asked, “and why have ye got out axe?”

  But that man, he just groaned and kept rubbing his eyes. Tanyushka began to feel sorry for him, she got a mug of water and wanted to give it him, but he stumbled to the door and yelled: “Keep off!”

  He backed into the entry and stopped there, and held the door so Tanyushka couldn't get out. But she climbed through the window and ran to the neighbours. Well, they came with her and started asking the man who he was and what he wanted. He blinked a bit, he was beginning to see again, and then said he'd been passing and come to ask alms, and then something had happened to his eyes.

  “It was like the sun in them, I though I was blinded. Maybe the heat made me sick.”

  Now, Tanyushka hadn't told the neighbours about the axe or the casket either. So they said to each other: “It's naught, she maybe forgot to fasten the gate and he came in, and then he got struck queer-like. All sorts of things happen.”

  Still, they kept him there and waited for Nastasya. When she came with the boys the man told her the same as he'd told the neighbours. Nastasya saw everything was in its place, nothing gone, so she didn't bother about him. The man went away and the neighbours too.

  Then Tanyushka told her mother all about how it really had been. Nastasya guessed he'd come for the casket, but it seemed it wasn't such an easy thing to steel it. All the same, she thought, I'd better be careful.

  She said nothing to Tanyushka and the other children, but she took the casket into the cellar and shoveled earth over it.

  Again they all went out and left Tanyushka alone. She wanted to get the casket, but it wasn't there. Tanyushka was real upset, but suddenly she felt something warm about her. What could it be? Where did it come from? She looked round and saw a light coming up through the cracks of the floor. That frightened her - was something on fire down there? She opened the trapdoor and looked down - yes, there was a light coming from one corner. She got a bucket of water to put out the fire, but she couldn't see anything burning and there wasn't any smell of smoke either. So she felt about in the loose soil where the light was coming from and there she found the casket. She opened it and the stones seemed even more beautiful than they had been before. They were all sparkling in different colors and a light came from them like from the sun. Tanyushka did not take the casket up into the room, she stopped where she was and played with the trinkets till she was tired.

  So it went on from that day. The mother thought: I've hidden it well, no one knows where it is . . . . And the daughter, as soon as she was all alone, would spend an hour or so playing with her father's presents. As for selling them Nastasya wouldn't listen to a word about it.

  “If it looks like we'll have to go and beg our bread, then I'll do it, but not before.”

  She had a hard time, but she stuck to it. She struggled through a few years and then things got better. The older children started to earn a bit, and Tanyushka wasn't idle, either. She learned to embroider with beads and silk, and she did it so well that the cleverest embroiderers in the gentry's sewing-rooms threw up their hands in amaze - where did she get the designs, and where did she find the silks?

  It had been a strange chance, how that had all come about. A woman knocked at the door one day. About Nastasya's age, she was, not very tall, dark, with sharp, keen eyes, and quick enough to take your breath away. she had a homespun bag slung on her back and a cherry-wood staff in her hand like a pilgrim. She came to the door and asked Nastasya: “May I stop and rest a day or two, Mistress? I've a long road ahead and I'm dropping on my feet.”

  At first Nastasya wondered if it was someone after the casket again, but she let her stay all the same.

  “I don't grudge ye a rest,” she said. “You won't wear a whole in the floor or take it with ye. But it's poor fare here. In the morn it's onions and kvass, in the evening kvass and onions, that's all the change there is. If that'll do for ye, stop as long as ye like, and welcome.”

  But the traveler had already put down her staff and laid her bag on the seat by the stove without waiting for leave, and was taking off her boots. Nastasya wasn't too pleased at that. Pretty free and easy she is, thought Nastasya, stats taking off her boots and opening her sack without waiting for yea or nay . . . . But she said no word of it.

  Sure enough, the woman was unfastening her sack; then she beckoned Tanyushka.

  “Come here, child, and look at my handiwork. If it pleases you, I'll teach you to do it too, I can see ye have an eye for it.”

  Tanyushka went up close, and the woman gave her a strip of cloth with both ends embroidered in silk. And it was such a brilliant pattern, the very room seemed the brighter and warmer for it.

  Tanyushka couldn't stop looking at it, and the woman laughed. “So it takes your eye, my work, does it?” she said. “Would you like me to teach it ye?”

  “I would!”

  But Nastasya snapped: “Don't you even think of it. We've no money to buy salt with, and ye want to do silk embroidering! Silk costs money.”

  “Don't fret yourself about that, Mistress,” said the traveler. “If your daughter has skill she'll have the silk too. For your kindness I'll leave her enough to last a while. And after that you'll see how it'll be. Folks pay money for our craft. We don't give our work away. We earn our bread.”

  So Nastasya had to agree.

  “If you'll give her the silk, she can learn well enough. Why not, if she can do it? And thank ye kindly.”

  So the woman started to teach Tanyushka and the maid learned it all as quick as if she'd known it all before. And there was another thing. Tanyushka wasn't friendly with strangers, or loving with her family either, but this woman - she was clinging to her all the time. Nastasya looked askance, she wasn't too pleased. Found herself a new mother, she thought. Doesn't want to come to her own mother, but hugs a tramp!

  And that woman, just as though she wanted to rub it in, kept calling Tanyushka “child” and “daughter”, and never once used her christened name. Tanyushka saw her mother was put out, but it seemed like she couldn't help herself. She was so taken up with the woman, she even told her about the casket.

  “We've got a costly remembrance of Father,” she said, “a malachite casket. And the stones in it! I could look and look at them and never tire.”

  “Will you show it me, Daughter?” asked the woman.

  It never even came into Tanyushka's head that she mustn't.

  “Aye, I'll show ye,” she said, “when there's none of ours at home.”

  As soon as the chance came, Tanyushka took the woman down in the cellar. She got out the casket and opened it; the woman looked a bit, then she said: “Put them on, I can see them better that way.”

  Tanyushka didn't need telling twice, she put them on, and the woman, she started praising them.

  “Aye, they look fine, but they just need a touch or two.”

  She came up close and started touching a stone here and a stone there with her finger. And whatever stone she touched, it sparkled quite differently. Tanyushka could see some of them, and some she couldn't. Then the woman said: “Stand up straight, Daughter.”

  Tanyushka stood straight, and the woman started stroking her hair and her back, very gently. She stroked her all over, then she said: “When I tell you to turn round, mind you don't look back at me. Look straight in front, watch all you see and say naught. Now turn round.”

  Tanyushka turned, and there was a great hall in front of her, she'd never seen the like in all her life. It looked like a church, and yet it wasn't quite the same. The ceiling was very high up, supported on columns of pure malachite. The walls were covered with malachite to the height of a man, and there was a pattern of malachite all along the top. And right in front of Tanyushka, like in a mirror, stood a beautiful maiden, the kind you hear of in fairy-tales. Her hair was dark as night and her eyes shone green. She was decked with precious stones, and her robe was of green velvet that gleamed all shades. It was a robe made like the ones worn by tsarinas in pictures, you wonder what keeps them up. Our maids would take shame to let folks see them like that, but the green-eyed maid stood there quite quite, as if that was the proper way. And that hall was full of people, dressed city way, all gold and medals. Some had medals hanging in front, others had them sewn on the back, and some had them all over. It was clear they were very great lords. And there were women, too, just the same - with naked arms and naked bosoms and jewels hung all over them. But none could hold a candle to the green-eyed maid. Not one of them worth a look, even.

  Beside the maid stood a tow-headed man; he'd a squint and big ears that stood out, so he looked for all the world like a hare. And the clothes he wore - a fair wonder, it was. Gold wasn't enough for him, he'd got precious stones on his shoes, even. And the kind you'd find once in ten years. He must have had a lot of mines of his own. He kept babbling something to the maid, that hare did, but she didn't so much as move an eyebrow, just as if he wasn't there.

  Tanyushka looked at the maid, wondered at her, and then she suddenly noticed something. “Why, those are Father's stones she's wearing!” she cried, and in that moment it all vanished.

  The woman just laughed.

  “You didn't look long enough, Daughter! Now don't ye fret, you will see it again, all in good time.”

  Of course Tanyushka was full of questions - where was the place she'd seen?

  “It's in the Tsar's palace,” said the woman, “it's the hall that's decorated with the malachite your father got.”

  “And who was that maid wi' Father's gems and who was the man as looked like a hare?”

  “That, my child, I'll not tell ye, you'll soon learn it for yourself.”

  When Nastasya came home that day, the stranger woman was getting ready to go. She bowed low to the mistress and gave Tanyushka a bundle of silks and beads. Then she look out a little button, it might have been glass or it might have been crystal cut smooth.

  “Take this, Daughter, for a remembrance,” she said, and gave it to Tanyushka. “If you forget something in your work, or if you're in a difficulty, look at the button. You'll find your answer there.”

  With that she turned and went away. Vanished all of a sudden.

  From then on Tanyushka was skilled at her craft. She was coming to the age for marriage, too - she looked a grown maid already; the lads would eye Nastasya's windows, but they didn't dare to make free with Tanyushka. She wasn't the friendly sort, you see, she was grave and aloof. And besides, what would a free maid want with a serf? It would be just putting her head in the yoke.

  In the Big House they heard of Tanyushka's skill at her craft, and started sending lads to her. They'd pick one of the lackeys, one that was young and handsome, give him a fine suit, hang a watch and chain on him and send him to Tanyushka with some message or other. Maybe, they thought, a dashing young fellow like that would catch her fancy. Then they'd have her a serf. But it was no good. When the lackey gave his message she would answer him, but for all other talk she had no ear. And when she got tired of it she'd make a mock of him too.

  “Go along, go along, they're waiting for ye. They must be feared you'll spoil that fine watch and rub the gold off the chain. Can't keep your fingers off it, it's that new to ye.”

  She'd got words that scalded like hot water thrown on a dog. He'd slink off snarling: “Call that a maid? A stone statue with green eyes! There's plenty better!”

  He could snarl all he liked, but still he'd seem bewitched, like. Whoever they sent was mazed with Tanyushka's beauty. Something seemed to pull them back, even though it was only to walk past and eye the window. On feast days all the young fellows in the village found something to do in that street. They beat a track past the window, but Tanyushka never so much as looked at them.

  The neighbours began to reproach Nastasya.

  “Who does she think she is, your Tanyushka? She keeps away from the girls and she won't look at the lads. Is she waiting for the Tsarevich, or does she think to be the Bride of Christ?”

  Nastasya could only sigh.

  “Eh, Neighbour, I can't make aught of it myself. She always was a strange maid, but since that sorceress was here, she's beyond me. I start talking to her, and she just stares at that witching button of hers and says no word. I'd throw it away, that button, but it helps her in her work. When she needs to change her silks and that, she looks at the button. She showed it me once, but my eyes must be getting bad for I saw naught there. I could give her a whipping, but she's a right good worker. It's really her craft as keeps us. So I think and think till I start crying. And then she says: 'But Mother, I know this won't always be my place. I don't beguile the lads, I don't even join the games. Why should I want to plague folks for naught? If I sit by the window it's because I have to, for my work. Why d'ye scold me? What have I done bad?' Now how can I answer that?”

  But with it all, life was better for them. Tanyushka's work got to be the fashion with the gentry. It was not only the ones near the village and in our town that bought it, people sent from other places too, and paid well for the work. Many a good man doesn't earn as much. But then there came a great mishap - a fire. It broke out in the night. The sheds and shelters for the livestock, the horse and cow, the farm tools and other gear - all were lost. They just managed to get out with what they stood up in. except that Nastasya did snatch up the casket.

  The next day she said: “Seems like we've come to the end. We'll have to sell the casket of gems.” And the sons all said: “Aye, sell it, Mother. But don't let them go cheap.”

  Tanyushka looked secretly at the button, and there was the green-eyed maid nodding - aye, sell them. It was a bitter think for Tanyushka, but there was naught else to be done. Besides, soon or late they would go to that green-eyed maid anyway. So she sighed and said: “Aye, sell them if ye must.” She didn't even take a last look at the gems. Besides, they had taken shelter with a neighbor, so there was no place to lay them out.

  No sooner had they made up their minds to sell, than the merchants were there. Maybe one of them had started the fire himself so as to get hold of the casket. They're that sort - got claws that'll pierce aught to grab what they want. They saw the lads were grown now, so they started offering more. Some five hundred, and one even went up to a thousand. There was plenty of money about, Nastasya could set herself up quite comfortable with those gems. Well, so she asked two thousand. They kept coming to her, bargaining; they'd raise their prices a bit and keep it from each other, for they never could agree among themselves. It was a tempting bit, you see, that casket, none of them wanted to lose it. And while they were still at it, a new bailiff came to Polevaya.

  There were times when bailiffs stopped a long while, but in those years they kept changing and changing. The Stinking Goat who was there in Stepan's days maybe got to stink too much even for the old Master's stomach, anyway, he was sent to Krylatovskoye. Then came Roasted Bottom - the workers sat him down on a hot ingot one day. After him there was Severyan the Butcher, the Mistress settled him, turned him into rock. Then there were two more, and at last the one I'm going to tell you about.

  Folks said he was from foreign parts and knew all sorts of languages, all but our Russian, he spoke that badly. But there was one thing he could say well enough: “Flog him!” He'd draw it out, like, as though he was singing: “Flo-o-o-og him!” Like that. And whatever a man had done, it was always the same: “Flo-o-og him!” So folks called him Flogger.

  That Flogger wasn't really so bad, though. He made a lot of noise, but he didn't use the whipping post very much. The tormentors got fat and lazy, they'd naught to do. Folks had a chance to breathe a bit when Flogger was there.

  You see, it was this way. The Old Master had grown feeble, he could hardly get about. And he wanted to marry his son to a countess or someone like that. But the young gentleman had a kept woman and he was real foolish over her. There it was, a puzzle for the Old Master. It was kind of awkward. What would the bride's parents say to it? So the Old Master began persuading that woman - his son's light o' love - to marry the music and foreign tongues, the way the gentry did.

  “Why go on living wi' a bad name?” he said. “Marry the music teacher. I'll give ye a good portion and send your husband to be bailiff in Polevaya. It's all plain and easy there, so long as he's strict wi' the folks. He ought to have sense enough for that, even if he is a musician. And you'll live real well, you'll be the lady of the place. You will be respected and honoured and all the rest of it. Naught wrong wi' that, is there?”

  The woman was ready to listen. Maybe she'd quarreled with the Young Master, or maybe she was just clever.

  “It's what I've been wanting a long time,” she said, “but I didn't like to ask.”

  As for the music teacher, well, of course he jibbed at first. “I don't want her,” he said. “She's got a bad name, she's a trollop.”

  But the Old Master was sly. That's how he'd got rich. And he turned that music teacher right round. Whatever he scared him or flattered him or got him drunk I don't know, but he soon had the wedding day fixed and then the young couple went off to Polevaya. That was how Flogger came to our village. He didn't stop long but - give him his due - he wasn't so bad. Afterwards, when they got Double Jowl instead, folks wished him back.

  Flogger and his dame came just at the time when the merchants were round Nastasya like flies round a pot of honey. Now, that woman of Flogger's was a handsome piece, all pink and white - a real light o'love. Trust the Young Master to pick a tasty bit! Well, this is fine lady heard about the casket. “Let's have a look at it,” she said, “maybe it's really worth buying.” So she dressed herself up and drove to Nastasya. They had all the estate horses to use.

  “Here, my good woman,” she said, “show me those stones you're selling.”

  Nastasya got out the casket and opened it. And Flogger's dame - her eyes nearly popped out of her head. She'd lived in Petersburg, and been other lands with the Young Master too, and she knew something about gems. And she was real amazed. What's this, she thought, the Tsarina hasn't gems like these, and here they are in Polevaya, with folks as have been burnt out! I must see they don't slip through my fingers.

  “What d'ye want for them?” she asked, and Nastasya told her: “I'm asking two thousand.”

  The dame bargained a bit, just for decency's sake, then she said: “Well I will give ye your price, my good woman. Bring the casket to my house, and you'll get your money there.”

  But Nastasya told her: “Bread doesn't run after a stomach in our parts. Bring the money and the casket's yours.”

  Well, Flogger's dame saw she'd have to do it the way Nastasya wanted. So she hurried home for the money. But first she told Nastasya: “See you don't sell to anyone else.”

  “Don't ye fret,” said Nastasya. “I keep my word. I'll wait till evening, but after that I do as I like.”

  Off went the dame, and all the merchants came hurrying in, they'd been watching, you see. And they wanted to know what had happened.

  “I've sold them,” said Nastasya.

  “How much?”

  “Two thousand, the price I asked.”

  Then they all shouted at her: “Are you crazy or what? Give them to a stranger and refuse your own folk!” And they started bidding again, putting up their prices. But Nastasya wasn't to be caught.

  “Those may be your ways, say this and promise that and turn it all round, but they're not mine. I've given my word, and that's the end of it.”

  Flogger's dame was soon back. She brought the money, put it into Nastasya's hand, picked up the casket and turned round to go back home. And there on the threshold she met Tanyushka. The maid had been away somewhere when the casket was sold. Tanyushka saw the dame holding the casket and looked well at her, but it wasn't the one she'd seen that time. And Flogger's wife stared back.

  “What's this sprite? Whose is she?”

  “Folks call her my daughter,” said Nastasya. “It ought to have gone down to her, that casket you've bought. I'd never ha' sold it if we hadn't got to the end. Ever since she was a bit of a thing she's always played wi' those gems. She'd try them on and say they made her feel warm and happy. But what's the good, talking o'that now? What falls off the carts lost and gone!”

  “You're wrong there, my good woman,” said Flogger's dame. “I'll find a place for those gems, they won't be lost.” But what she thought to herself was: A good thing that green-eyed maid doesn't know her own power. If she got to St. Petersburg she'd turn the heads of tsars. Better see my fool Turchaninov doesn't set eyes on her.

  On that they parted.

  Flogger's wife came home and started to brag to her husband.

  “Now, my friend, I don't need to be beholden any more to you or to Turchaninov either. The first thing that doesn't suit me - off I go! I'll go to St. Petersburg, or maybe I'll go abroad, I'll sell the casket and then I'll buy husbands lie you by the dozen if I want.”

  That's how she bragged, but all the same she badly wanted to show herself in those gems she'd bought. A woman, after all! So she ran to the mirror and first of all she put on the head-dress. But - oh, oh, what's this? It nipped her and pulled her hair so she just couldn't bear it. And she had a job to get it off. But still she itched to see herself in the things. She put on the earrings and they nearly tore her lobes. She put on a ring and it nipped so she could hardly pull it from her finger, even when she soaped it. And her husband just sat and jeered at her - not meant for you to wear, those things!

  It's queer, she thought. I'll have to go to town and let a good craftsman take a look at them. Shape them and make them fit - but I must see he doesn't change the stones.

  No sooner said than done. The next morning off she went. It didn't take long to get to town with three good horses pulling. She asked folks where she could find a good craftsman and an honest one, and sought him out. He was an old man, real ancient, and very skilled. He took a look at the casket and asked her where she'd bought it. The dame told him all she knew. The old man looked at the casket again, but he never even glanced at the gems.

  “I won't touch them,' he said, ”no matter what ye offer me. The craftsman that made all this are none of ours. And I'm not the one to vie with them.“

  Of course the dame didn't understand what it was all about, she sniffed and went off to find another craftsman. But it was as if they were all in a plot. One after another they looked at the casket, admired it, never so much as glanced at the gems and refused to have anything to do with it. Then she dame tried cunning, she said she'd bought the casket in St. Petersburg. They make such things there. But the man she served with that tale only laughed at her.

  “I know where the casket was made,” he said, “and I've heard tell of the craftsman that made it. There's none of us can try to vie with him. If he's made things to fit one, no other will be able to wear them, try as ye will.”

  The dame still didn't understand the whole of it, but one thing she could see - the man was scared of something. And then she called to mind how Nastasya had said her daughter liked to put on those trinkets.

  Could they be made for that green-eyed creature? Bad fortune, indeed!

  But then came second thoughts. What does it matter to me? I'll sell them to some rich fool. Let her bother herself about them, the money will be safe in my pocket!…… So back she went to Polevaya.

  When she arrived she found news. The Old Master had gone to his eternal rest. He'd been cunning enough, the way he had fixed it all with Flogger, but Death had been one too many for him. Knocked him over the head. He hadn't had time to get his son married, so now the young man was his own master. And it wasn't long before Flogger's wife got a letter. It told her this and that, and when the spring floods go down, my sweeting, I'll come and have a look at the village and take you back with me, and as for your music master, we'll get rid of him somehow . . . . Flogger found out about it and made an uproar. It shamed him before the folks. After all, he was the bailiff, and now here was the Master coming to take away his wife. He started drinking hard. With the clerks and such like, of course. And they were glad enough so long as he stood treat.

  One day when he was carousing with his flatterers and boon companions, one of them started to brag.

  “We've got a real beauty in our village, you'd have to go a long journey find another like her.”

  Flogger was quick enough to catch that. “Whose maid is she? Where does she live?”

  They told him all about it, and reminded him of the casket - that's where your goodwife bought it, from that family.

  “I'd like to take a look at her,” said Flogger, and the carousing band thought of a way to do it.

  “We can go now, see if they've built the new cottage right. They're free, but they live on the village land. There's always to compel them.”

  Off they went, two or three of them, and Flogger too. They took a chain for measuring, to see if maybe Nastasya had filched a bit of land from the neighbours, and if the boundary posts were the right distance apart. Tried to catch her out. Then they went into the cottage, and Tanyushka happened to be alone there. Flogger took one look at her and lost his tongue. For he'd never seen such beauty in any land he'd been in. He just stood there like a fool, and as for her - she sat quite quite as though it was all naught to her. Then Flogger got his wits back a bit and asked her: “What's that you're doing?”

  “It's embroidery folks have ordered,” she said, and showed him.

  “And would ye take an order from me?” asked Flogger.

  “Why not, if we come to terms.”

  “Then,” said Flogger, “can ye make me a portrait of yourself in fine silk?”

  Tanyushka looked quietly at her button, and the green-eyed maid signed to her - take the order, and then pointed at herself.

  “I won't make my own portrait,” said Tanyushka, “but I know a woman wearing precious gems, in the robe of a tsarina, I can do that. But it won't be cheap, such work.”

  “Ye needn't fret about that,” said Flogger, “it can be a hundred rubles or two hundred, if only the woman's like you.”

  “The face will be like,” she said, “but the clothes will be different.”

  They agreed on a hundred rubles. Tanyushka said it would be ready in a month. But all the same Flogger kept coming and coming, making as though he wanted to see how it was getting on, but it was something quite different really. His wits seemed addled, but Tanyushka, she took no notice. She'd say two or three words, and that was all. Flogger's boon companions started to mock him.

  “You'll get naught there. Wasting boot leather!”

  Well, Tanyushka finished that portrait. Flogger took a look and - God above! - it was her very self, only in rich robes and gems. He gave her three hundred rubles instead of one, but Tanyushka handed two of them back.

  “We don't take gifts,” she said, “we work for our bread.”

  Flogger hurried home; he kept looking at that portrait but he hid it away from his wife. He didn't drink so much, and started to take a bit of interest in the village and the mine.

  With springtime, the Young Master arrived. Come driving into Polevaya one fine day. The people were all called together, there were prayers in the church, and then all kinds of dancing and prancing in the Big House. A couple of barrels of wine were rolled out for the common folk too, so they could drink to the memory of the Old Master and the health of the new one. It was like priming a pump - the Turchaninovs were good at that. Add ten bottles of your own to the Master's goblet and then it would look like something, but at the end of it all you'd find your last kopek gone and naught to show for it.

  The next day the people were back at work again, but there was still feasting and drinking in the Big House. And so it went on. They'd go rowing about in boats, or riding horses in the woods, and then the music would start - there was everything you could think of. And all this time Flogger was drunk. The Master gave the wink to his hardest drinkers - fill him up and keep him that way. Well, of course, they were glad enough to curry favour with the new Master.

  Flogger was drunk, but he'd a good idea what was coming, all the same. He welt awkward like, in front of the guests. So when they were all at table, he burst out: “What do I care if Master Turchaninov takes my wife! He can have her for all of me! I don't want her. Take a look at the maid I've got!” and what does he do but pull that portrait from his pocket. They all gasped, and Flogger's dame, her mouth dropped open and she couldn't seem to get it shut again. As for the Master, he just stared and stared. And he wanted to know more.

  “Who is she?” he asked.

  Flogger just laughed. “If you help the whole table wi' gold I shan't tell ye!”

  But what was the good of that, when everyone knew Tanyushka! They all fought to be the first to tell him. But Flogger's dame, she kept arguing and trying to stop them.

  “Stuff and nonsense! You don't know what you're talking of! Where'd a village maid get a dress like that, and gems, too? That portrait, my husband brought it from abroad. He showed it me before we were married. He's drunk, he doesn't know what he is saying. When he's sober he won't remember a word of it.”

  Flogger could see his wife was all in a taking and started snarling at her.

  “You're a shameless hussy, that's what ye are! Trumping up a cock-and-bull tale to fool the Master! When did I ever show ye that portrait? I got it here. From that maid they're talking of. About the dress, I won't tell a lie, I don't know anything about it. You can put any dress on her. But the gems, she did have those. And now they're here, locked in your cupboard. You bought them for yourself for two thousand, but you couldn't wear them. A Circassian saddle won't go on a cow. The whole village knows how ye bought them!”

  The Master no sooner heard of the gems than he said: “Get them out, show me them.”

  Now that Young Master, hark 'ee, was a spendthrift, played ducks and drakes with his money. Like heirs often are. And he was real mad about gems. He couldn't boast much of looks, so at least he'd be itching to buy them. And he understood about them right enough, though in general hadn't much wits.

  Flogger's dame saw there was no way out, so she brought the casket. And the moment the Master saw the gems he asked: “How much?”

  She named a figure beyond all sight or reason. The Master started bargaining. They came to terms on the half, and the Master started bargaining. They came to terms on the half, and the Master signed a paper for the money - he hadn't that much with him, you see. Then he put the casket on the table in front of him and said: “Send for that maid ye have been telling of.”

  Some of them went of running to fetch Tanyushka. She came at once, thinking naught of it - she expected some big order for work. She came into the room, and there it was full of people, and in the middle a man with a face like a hare, the same one she'd seen that time. And in front of the hare stood the casket, her father's gift. Tanyushka guessed at once it was the Young Master.

  “What d'ye want of me?” she asked.

  But it seemed like he couldn't speak. He just stared and stared at her. Then at last he found his tongue again.

  “Are those your gems?” he asked.

  “They used to be, but now they're hers,” and she pointed to Flogger's dame.

  “No, they're mine,” said Turchaninov.

  “That's your affair.”

  “Would you like me to give them back to ye?”

  “I've naught to give for them.”

  “Well, you won't refuse to try them on - I want to see how they look when they are worn.”

  “I don't mind doing that,” said Tanyushka.

  She took the casket, sorted out the trinkets the way she was used to doing, and quickly put them on. The Master looked and he just gasped. Gasped and gasped and naught else. And Tanyushka, she stood there in the ornaments and said: “There they are. Have ye looked your fill? I've no time to be standing here. I've work waiting.”

  But right there, in front of them all, the Master said: “Marry me. Will you?”

  Tanyushka only laughed.

  “It's not fitting to talk that way, Master, to one as isn't your equal.” Then she took off the trinkets and went.

  But the Young Master couldn't let her alone. The next day he came to her cottage to make his proposal in all form. He begged and urged Nastasya - give me your daughter.

  “I won't force her one way or the other,” said Nastasya. “Let it be as she says. But to my mind it's not suitable.”

  Tanyushka listened and listened, and then she said: “Here's my word. I've heard tell there's a chamber in the Tsar's palace decorated with the malachite my father got. If you show me the Tsarina in that chamber, then I'll be your wife.”

  The master was ready to agree to anything, of course. He started off at once getting ready to go to St. Petersburg, and wanted to take Tanyushka with him - I'll get you horses, he said. But Tanyushka told him: “It's not our custom for a maid to use a man's horses before she is wed, and we're still naught to one another. We'll talk of that later on, when ye have kept your word.”

  “When will you come to St. Petersburg, then?” he said.

  “I'll be there by Intercession Day,” she said. “Ye can rest easy about that. And now go.”

  The Master left; of course he didn't take Flogger's dame with him, didn't even give her a look. As soon as he got back to St. Petersburg he told the whole town about the gems and the maid. He showed the casket to many. And of course folks were real curious to see the maid. By the autumn he'd got a house for her, and bought all kinds of robes and shoes and put them ready. And then she sent word she had come, and was living with some widow right on the edge of the town.

  Of course Turchaninov went straight off there.

  “Why are you here? How can you live in a place like this? I've got a house all ready, you couldn't want a better.”

  But all Tanyushka said was: “I'm quite comfortable where I am.”

  The talk about the gems and Turchaninov's maid got to the Tsarina too. “Let Turchaninov show me that bride of his,” she said, “for what's told of her is beyond belief.”

  Off he went to Tanyushka - she must get herself ready; she must have a robe to wear at court, and put on the gems from the malachite casket.

  “About my dress ye needn't concern yourself,” she said, “but the gems I'll come my own way. Wait for me by the entrance to the palace.”

  Turchaninov wondered a good bit - where would she get horses? And a court robe? But he didn't dare ask.

  All the grand folks gathered at the court, they came rolling up in carriages, in their silks and velvets. Turchaninov was early by the door, fidgeting about, waiting for Tanyushka. And there were others curious to see her, they stood about waiting too. But Tanyushka, she put on the gems, fastened a kerchief round her head the village way, put on her sheepskin and came along quietly on foot. And the folks who saw her, they wondered where she'd come from and followed her in a crowd. She came to the palace but the lackeys wouldn't let her in. “Villagers can't come in here,” they said. Turchaninov saw her when she was a good way off, but he was ashamed to have his bride come on foot and in a country sheepskin, so he went and hid himself. Tanyushka opened her sheepskin and the lackeys stared. That robe - why, the Tsarina herself hadn't one like it! They let her in at once. And as soon as Tanyushka took off her kerchief and sheepskin all the people gasped in wonder and started asking: “Who is she? What land's this Tsarina come from?”

  Turchaninov was there in a moment.

  “This is my bride,” he said.

  But Tanyushka looked at him very sternly.

  “That's still to be seen,” she said. “Why didn't ye keep your word, why weren't you at the entrance?”

  Turchaninov mumbled and stumbled, there had been a mistake, please forgive him, and so on.

  They went into a chamber of the palace, the one where they were told to go. Tanyushka looked round and saw it wasn't the right one.

  “What's this, are you trying to deceive me?” she asked, more sternly still. “I told ye it must be the chamber that's decorated with the malachite my father got.” And she started walking through the palace just as if she were at home there. And all the senators and generals and the rest followed after her. “What's this?” they said. “That must be where we're all to go.”

  The people crowded in till it was as full as could be, and all of them staring at Tanyushka. And as for her, she stood close up to the malachite wall and waited. Of course Turchaninov was there right by her. He kept babbling that it wasn't fitting, the Tsarina had said they were to wait for her in another chamber. But Tanyushka stood there quietly, didn't even move an eyebrow, just as though he wasn't there at all.

  The Tsarina went into the chamber she'd said and found it empty. But her informers quickly told her that Turchaninov's maid had led them all away to the Malachite Hall. The Tsarina scolded, of course - such highhanded goings-on! - and she stamped her foot, too. She was a bit angry, you see. Then she went to the Malachite Hall. Everybody bowed low, but Tanyushka stood there and never moved.

  “Now then,” said the Tsarina, “show me this high-handed maid, this bride of Turchaninov's!”

  When Tanyushka heard that she frowned and said to Turchaninov: “What does this mean? I told ye to show me the Tsarina, and you've done it so as to show me to her. You've lied again! I don't want to see any more of ye. Take your gems!”

  With those words she learned against the malachite wall - and melted away. All that was left was the gems sparkling on the wall, stuck there in the places where her head, neck and arms had been.

  Of course all the countries were real scared and the Tsarina swooned right away. There was a great to-do till they'd raised her. Then when everything had quietened down a bit, Turchaninov's friends said to him: “Take your gems, at least, before they're stolen. It's the palace you're in! Folks here know their value.”

  So Turchaninov started trying to pick them off the wall, but each one he touched turned into a drop - some clear like tears, other yellow, and others thick and red like blood. So he got none of them. He looked down and there on the floor was a button. Just a glass button, bottle glass, it looked like. A worthless bit of a thing. But in his trouble he even picked that up. And as soon as he had it in his hand, it was like a mirror and the green-eyed maid looking out of it, wearing a malachite robe with the precious gems, and laughing and laughing.

  “Eh, ye stupid cross-eyed hare!” she said. “For you to think of getting me! What match for me are you?”

  After that Turchaninov lost the last of his wits, but he didn't throw away the button. He'd keep looking in it, and it was always the same thing he saw - there stood the green-eyed maid and laughed and laughed and mocked him. He was so cast down he started drinking, and got into debt right and left, our village and mines almost went under the hammer in his time.

  As for Flogger, after he was put out of his job he spent his time in the tavern. He drank all he had, but he still kept that portrait in silk. What happened to it after, nobody knows.

  Flogger's dame was left empty-handed too. Try to get your money on a note of hand when all the iron and copper's mortgaged!

  About Tanyushka nobody ever heard a word more from that day on. It was just as though she'd never been.

  Nastasya grieved, of course, but not over much. Tanyushka, you see, had always been like a changeling, not like a daughter to her at all. And then, the lads had both grown up. They got married. There were grandchildren. Plenty of folks in the cottage. Plenty to do and think of - watch one, give a slap to another - no time to brood!

  But the young fellows didn't forget Tanyushka for a long time. They still came round Nastasya's window. Maybe some day she'd be there. But she never was. Then in the end they got married one by one, but time and again they'd remember: “Eh, that was a rare maid used to live in our village! Ye will never see another like her.”

  But there was one other thing; talk started going round that the Mistress of the Copper Mountain had a double: folks would see two maids in malachite robes, two of them together.

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