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Sochen's Gems

2006-07-13 23:17

  After Stepan's death - he was the one that got the malachite columns - a lot of folks came around Krasnogorka. They wanted to find the kind of stones that had been in Stepan's dead hand. But it was autumn, just before the snow. Not much to be done then. As soon as the snow melted, though, they all came back, swarms of them. They grubbed here, dug there, found iron ore, saw that was all there was and gave it up. Only Vanka Sochen kept at it. Other folks were getting ready for the mowing and there he was, picking away round the ore mines. He wasn't a real prospector, either, he'd just drifted into it. In his young years he'd been a sort of lackey for the Master and got thrown out for something he'd done amiss. But the taint stayed with him - a lickspittle, that's what he was. Always trying to put himself forward, anyway. To curry favour. But what could he do? Of learning he'd but a mite. Not enough to be a clerk. He was no good for the furnaces, and in the mines he wouldn't last a week. So he tried prospecting for gold. Thought that would be sweet as honey. Tasted it and found it bitter. But then he got a job after his own heart. Pushing his snout in among the prospectors, sniffing and listening, and carrying all he picked up to the office. He didn't put away his prospector's pan, though. He still washed sand, but his only thought was - what he could spy out. And those in the office, they saw he was crafty and useful to them. So they'd make it worth his while, give him a good place to work, and money, and clothes and boots too. The prospectors settled their own accounts with him as well - one with a box on the ear, another with a buffet over the head, and some everywhere at once. Whatever he'd deserved. But Sochen was used to blows, after all, he'd been a lackey. He'd lie up a bit and then start all over again. And that was how he went on, from one to the other. And he'd picked a woman to fit him. I don't mean she was light in her ways or a trollop, but just - well, they all called her Sup-Abroad; she liked to get something for nothing. They'd no children, of course - what would they want with children?

  So when the talk went round about Stepan's stones and all the folk started swarming over Krasnogorka, Sochen was there too.

  I'll try my luck, he thought. I'm no worse than Stepan. Anyway, I wouldn't be such a fool as to crush wealth to powder in my hand.

  Now, prospectors know the signs, whether it's worth looking here or there. They scratched a bit on Krasnogorka, saw it wasn't the right kind of rock and let it alone. But that Sochen, he thought he knew better, and he stopped there.

  If I don't get rich, he thought, my name's not Vanka Sochen! He'd an opinion of himself, he had!

  One day he was digging in a gallery of the mine. He'd turned over ore in plenty and got naught for his pains, when suddenly a rock broke away. Twenty poods weight, it must have been, maybe more. Nearly crushed hi feet. He jumped back, then he took a look in the hole it had left and right in front of him he saw two green stones. Sochen was all cock-c-hoop, thought he'd lighted on a pocket. He reached out to get them, when there came a hiss - Vanka was that scared he filled his pants. And then a cat jumped out. Brown all over, it was, without any markings, only its green eyes and white teeth shining. It was bristling, back up, tail like a poker - looked ready to fly at him. Vanka ran for his life. He covered a verst or maybe two without looking back till he'd no more breath and was half-dead. Then he eased off a bit. He went home and shouted to his goodwife: “Heat the bath-house quick! I've messed myself.”

  When he'd finished steaming himself, what must the fool do but go and tell the whole tale to his wife. And of course she had her word to say.

  “You'd better go to Granny Cartwheel, Vanyushka. Beg her to help. She'll give ye the right counsel.”

  That was an old woman folks tell of. She'd make steam baths for women whose time had come, and sometimes rid maids of the fruit of their foolishness. She'd got legs bowed like a hoop, so her body seemed set on a wheel. That's why they called her Cartwheel.

  Vanka wanted no more to do with it all.

  “I won't go anywhere, and there's no gold in the world would get me down that mine again. Not wi' things like that there! Nay, I'll have naught to do with it!”

  He even wanted to send someone else to get his tools. He was real scared. But when a day had gone, and another, and a third, he got over it a bit. And his wife kept on nagging at him.

  “Go to Cartwheel, go to her! She's a witch. She'll tell ye how to get the stones.” The woman was greedy for wealth too, you see.

  So Vanka went to Cartwheel. He started telling her about it, but what could that old crone understand about wealth underground? She just sat there muttering: “Dyrr-gyrr-byrr. The snake fears the cat, the cat fears the dog, the dog fears the wolf, the wolf fears the bear. Dyrr-gyrr-byrr! Avaunt! Begone!” all that sort of witches' jabber. But Vanka, he just stood there thinking: That's a real wise woman!

  He told her the whole tale, and the crone asked: “Have ye a coat of dogskin, my son?”

  “Aye,” he said, “but it is a bad one, all torn.”

  “No matter,” she said, “so long as it's got the stink o' dog.”

  “It's got that a-plenty,” said Sochen, “it was taken from starved curs.”

  “That'll do, then. Put on that coat and mind ye don't take it off till ye bring the stones home. And if ye're still afeard, I'll give ye a wolf's tail to hang round your neck or bear's fat to sew inside your shirt. Only ye'll have to pay for them, and pay well.”

  Sochen bargained with the crone, then went home for the money.

  “Here you are, Granny, now give me the tail and the fat.” The crone was real glad - what a fool God had sent her!

  Sochen hung the tail round his neck, and his wife sewed the fat into the collar of his shirt. Then he put the dogskin coat on top of it all and set off for Krasnogorka. Folks that met him stared to see him wearing a dogskin coat in that heat. But the groaned a bit and said he was shaking with fever, though the sweat was running down his face.

  He came to the mine and there were his tools lying about, just as he'd left them. Only the shanty he'd made of branches had been pushed crooked by the wind.

  Clear enough, nobody'd been there. Sochen looked about a bit, and then started breaking out the ore again, and getting naught for his pains. The day wore on to evening. Sochen was afeard to stop there, but he got tired. Try to swing a pick wearing a dogskin coat in summer time! A strong man'll soon have enough of it, and Sochen was puny. So he just lay down to rest where he stood. Sleep's not like us, it favours all the same. The coward snores as hearty as the brave man.

  When Vanka wakened, he felt fine and as bold as could be. He had a bite to eat and back he went to work. He kept on striking with his pick, and then, just like that other time, a great rock fell down, nearly took his feet with it. Now the cat'll jump out, he thought. But no, nothing came. Seemed like the wolf's tail and the bear's fat had virtue in them. He went up to the hole and saw the rock in the back was a different kind. He cleared everything away all round, got to that place and started picking out the new rock. It was bluish, like the kind they call lapis lazuli, and lay light and loose. He picked at it a bit and came on a pocket. Six green stones he found, and all of them lying in pairs. Somehow or other Sochen found straight to go on hewing. But no matter how much he tried, he saw no more. Not a sign. Not even that kind of rock. Just as if it had been put there to show him.

  Vanka didn't give up for a long time. He'd take another look at those stones and set to work with his pick again. But it was no good. He got tired out, his bread was all eaten, time to go home.

  There was a path straight to the spring by the bridge over the Severushka. That was the path was easy to see. Sochen walked along thinking how much he'd get for the stones. And then suddenly he heard something behind him.

  “Miaaw! Miaaw! Give us back our eyes!”

  He turned round. There were three cats running after him, all of them brown, and with no eyes in their heads. Looked just ready to spring. Vanka dashed into the wood on one side and the cats after him. But what could they do, blind? Even with sight to help him, Sochen scratched his face till it bled and tore that dogskin coat to tatters. He got stuck in a swamp and fell down more times than he could count before he managed to get out on the highroad, more dead than alive. By good fortune some of the men from Severnaya were passing with five carts. They saw a man dash out, all frantic, so they just put him on one of the carts and took him to Severnaya, and from there Sochen made his way home himself. It was night, his wife was asleep, but the hat wasn't fastened up. She was slipshod too, Sochen's wife was. She'd lie and sleep, and let the house look after itself. Sochen blew the fire to a blaze, made the sign of the cross at all the corners and pulled out his wallet to take a look at the stones. But what d'you think? - there was naught but a pinch of dust inside! He'd crushed them all. Well, Sochen set up a howl and started cursing Cartwheel with all the words he could think of.

  “With all your mummery, you this and you that, you couldn't keep the cats off me! What did I give ye money for, what did I wear that coat for?”

  He wakened his wife, gave her a buffet and plenty of abuse. She saw he was beside himself and thought soft answers better. So she let him shout and kept saying: “Vanyushka, shall I heat the bath for ye?”

  She knew the way to smooth him down, you see. Well, Vanka shouted some more, but after that he quieted a bit and told the woman the whole story. Then it was she who started crying and screaming. She took a look at that dust in his wallet, picked up a bit, licked it and back to her crying. So they both howled together. And then the woman started off with her counsel again.

  “Cartwheel's not strong enough, seemingly,” she said. “You need to go to the priest, that'll make the spell more powerful.”

  At first Sochen wouldn't hear a word. He shook at the very thought of going back to that mine. But the woman kept at him like a fly. She buzzed round him one whole day, and a second, and at last she got her way. And Vanka himself began to take heart a bit.

  I needn't have been so scared of the cats, he thought. They'd no eyes, after all!

  So off he went to the priest, and told him the whole tale.

  The priest thought and thought, and then he said: “You must promise the first stone you get for the Virgin's crown, my son, and after that give as many more as ye can.”

  “That I'll do,” said Sochen. “If I get a couple of dozen, I won't grudge five or six of them.”

  Then the priest got down to praying over Sochen. He read prayers out of one book, then out of another, and a third; he sprinkled water and blessed Sochen with a cross, and took half a ruble from him.

  “It would be good, my son,” he said, “if you took a cross of cypress from Mount Athos. I have one but its cost is high. However, as it's a special occasion, I'll let ye have it for what I paid myself.” And he named a sum twice as big as Cartwheel's. Well, you can't bargain with a priest; so Vanka went home, and he and his wife scraped up the last money they could find. Then Sochen bought the cross and started bragging to his wife: “Now there's naught I fear.”

  The next day he set off for the mine again. His wife had washed the shirt, the one with the bear's fat, and mended the dogskin coat as well as she was able. Vanka hung the wolf's tail round his neck and the cypress cross with it. When he came to Krasnogorka, it was all just the same as it had been. Everything lying as he'd left it. Only the shanty was a bit more crooked. Well, Vanka wasn't bothering himself about that. He went straight into the gallery. But as soon as he began to swing his pick, he heard a voice.

  “So you've come again, Vanka. Have ye no fear of cats without eyes?”

  Vanka turned round, and there she was, sitting quite close. He knew her at once by her dress of malachite. His arms and legs went all weak and his tongue could only stutter: “Oh aye - oh aye…… Dyrr-gyrr-byrr…… Holy - holy…… Avaunt!”

  She burst out laughing at him.

  “Now don't be so scared. I'm not a cat without eyes. Tell me, better, what you want here.”

  But Vanka just kept on stuttering: “Oh aye, oh aye…… Dyrr-gyrr-byrr……” Then he got a bit of a hold on himself. “I'm looking for gems . . . . Like the ones folks saw in Stepan's hand. . . . .”

  At that she frowned.

  “Keep that name off your tongue. But gems, I'll give ye those. I can see what kind of prospector ye are, aye, and I've heard the gold miners talk of ye. Ye do them many a good turn.”

  “Aye, that I do,” said Vanka, quite cheerful now. “I always do as my conscience bids me.”

  “And by your deeds you shall be rewarded. Only one thing, beware, see ye don't sell the stones. Not a single one. Look to it! Take them straight to the bailiff. And he'll reward ye with his own hands. And add more from the treasury. Enough for your whole lifetime. He'll give ye so much you won't be able to carry it home without help.”

  That's what she said, and then she led Sochen inside the hill. They went down, and she gave a kick to a great boulder. It rolled away, and underneath there was something like a hidden pocket. The rock was blue, and on it lay green stones, no end to them.

  “Take all you will,” she said, and stood there watching.

  Vanka may have been a poor sort of prospector, but his pouch was a good stout one, bigger than any of the other men's. He stuffed it full and still lusted for more. He thought of filling his trousers pockets, but feared to do it, for the Mistress was looking angry, though she said no word. So all he could do was say “thank you”。 He looked up again - and saw no one. He looked down at the pocket and it was gone. Just as if it had never been there. A boulder lay on the spot shaped like a bear. Vanka felt his pouch - it was stuffed so full it was like to burst. He looked again at the place where he'd got the stones, and then set off for home as fast as he could go. And as he ran he kept feeling at his pouch to make sure it was still there. He'd wave the wolf's tail over it, and rub the cross against it and then sun again. He got home long before evening. His wife was quite scared.

  “Shall I heat the bath-house?” she asked. But he was like a man in a frenzy.

  “Hang something over the street windows,” he said. So she covered them both with the first things she found. Then Sochen put the pouch on the table.

  “Look!”

  She did look, and saw the pouch stuffed full of some kind of green grains. First she rejoiced and crossed herself, but then she said: “Mebbe they're not real?”

  That made Vanka angry.

  “Fool! I got them in the mountain. Who's going to put false ones there?” but he didn't say it was the Mistress herself who'd shown him the stones. And given him strict orders about them, too. And the woman kept on with her nagging.

  “If there's so many you got your pouch full at once, then what if the muzhiks with horses hear of it? They'll be taking them away in cartloads. And what use'll they be then? Necklaces for the maids and toys for the children.”

  Sochen went purple in the face.

  “You shall know the price of these stones at once!”

  He tipped five of them into his hand, slung the pouch round his neck and hurried to the mine foreman.

  “Kuzma Mironych, take a look at these stones.”

  The man looked at them. Then he took that glass of his and peered through that. Then he tested them with acid.

  “Where did you get them?” he asked.

  Well, the office spy Vanka told him at once, of course.

  “On Krasnogorka.”

  “What place?”

  But here Vanka turned sly and described the spot where he'd been working at first.

  'Something queer about it,“ said the foreman. ”Iron ore doesn't have copper emeralds. Did ye get many?“

  Vanka put the pouch on the table. The foreman looked inside and stood there in a daze. When he'd got his breath back a bit, he said: “I congratulate ye, Ivan Trifonych! Luck's smiled on ye. Don't forget us small folks.” And he kept shaking hands with Vanka and making much of him. A marvel, it is, what money does! “Come right along.” He said, “to the bailiff.”

  Vanka held off a bit.

  “I ought to get a wash first, steam myself in the bath-house, put on other clothes.”

  What he really wanted was to put some of the stone aside. But the foreman kept on at him.

  'With a pouch like that you could go to the Tsar himself, let alone the bailiff. He'll not look askance at your clothes, he'll let ye in any time.“

  No way out. The foreman took Vanka straight to the bailiff. And there was the room full of folks. The old Master himself had just come. He was sitting in the middle holding to horn to his ear, and the bailiff kept boom-booming into it, telling him all about everything.

  The foreman went in ad said why he'd come, and the bailiff poured it into the Master's horn.

  “We've found copper emeralds at last. A good, faithful man's grudged no trouble to get them. We must give him a proper reward.”

  The Sochen was brought in. He took out his pouch, gave it to the Master and smacked a kiss on his hand, too. The Master was surprised.

  “Where's he come from? He knows his manners.”

  “He was once a lackey,” the bailiff boomed.

  “Ah, so that's it,” said the Master. “You can see it at once. And then they say house serfs make bad workers. Look how much he's got.”

  All the time he was sort of weighing the pouch in his hand. All the important folks of the place had crowded round to see. And the wives of the biggest officials were there too. The Master wanted to unfasten the pouch, but he hadn't the knack, so he gave it to Sochen. And Sochen was glad to oblige. He pulled the strap and opened the mouth.

  “By your leave, Master.”

  And then out came stench, enough to turn your stomach. Like a horse or cow that had died and rotted. The fine ladies standing nearest clapped their handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths, and the Master roared at the bailiff: “What's this? Will you make a mock of me?”

  The bailiff pushed his hand into the pouch, but not a thing was inside. Only the stink kept getting worse, the Master clapped his hand over his mouth and rushed out of the room. The rest made off all ways. Only the bailiff was left, and Sochen. Sochen was white, and the bailiff was shaking with rage.

  'What's this ye've done! Eh? Where did ye get all that stench together? Who taught ye the way?“

  Sochen saw it looked bad for him, so he came out with the whole story. Kept none of it back. The bailiff listened to it all. Then he said: “She promised you a reward, you say?”

  “Aye, that she did,” sighed Sochen.

  “And from me?”

  “That's what she said - you'd reward me with your own hands, and add more from the treasury.”

  'Here's the first of it, then,“ roared the bailiff, and smashed his fist into Sochen's face so his head nearly went through the wall.

  “That's just to be going on with,” he shouted. “You'll get your reward at the whipping post. And ye won't forget it to your dying day.”

  He got it. He got so much he couldn't get it home without help, he had to be carried on bast matting to the sick-house. Even those who'd given Sochen many a buffet felt a bit sorry for him.

  “The spy's got his portion!”

  The bailiff too had a bitter mouthful to chew. The Master sent for him the same day.

  “How dare you serve me a trick like that?”

  Of course the bailiff twisted and turned every way. “It was none of my doing, it was all that knave.”

  “But who,” said the Master, “let the knave into my presence, and with pouch in his hand, too?”

  Well, there was no way out for the bailiff, he could only say: “The fault was mine.”

  “Then take your deserts. And well earned. Instead of bailiff, you'll be overseer at Krylatovskoye,” said the Master, and then he turned to the officials who were there. “Let him get about in the fresh air a bit. He's got a bad smell. No wonder they call him the goat. As for me, I can't stand the sight of him. He turns my stomach, after yesterday.”

  In Krylatovskoye that bailiff was buried. After the way he'd been living, he found it hard fare there.

  Seems like the Mistress had played a trick on him too.

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