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Zhelezko's Secret

2006-07-14 00:35

  It was a bit after nineteen-five. Before that war with the Germans.

  Work was very slack for stone carvers in those years. And especially with malachite. Good stone was hard to come by. The Gumeshky mine where the best malachite used to be found was worked out, and the dumps had been picked over again and again. At the Tagil copper mines a piece might turn up now and then, but not very often. And those that needed them hunted for bits like that as if they were rare pelts. There was some sort of office in town just to buy them when they appeared. It was foreign, and of course it wasn't for our craftsmen it bought them.

  Then again, malachite wasn't the fashion any more. That happens with stone too. There's old men have worked on some kind all their lives, and when their grandsons grow up nobody'll look at it, even. Jasper and colored quartz were wanted now and then for decorations in churches and palaces, but the shops for stoneware only traded in cheap stuff. No joy in that for a skilled craftsman. He'd finish a job, smoke a pipeful, spit and start another. Just market stuff. Not worth looking at, if you've any understanding.

  All the same, the old men who'd got malachite and its patterns in their blood, like, they didn't give up their craft. Somehow they managed to find stone and customers who knew good work when they saw it, too.

  There was one like that in our village, Yevlakha Zhelexko, they called him. Folks said he'd found some secret place where he got malachite. Whether it was true or not I won't try to say, but there is one tale folks tell about him.

  It was this way. There was to be some big festival for the Tsarina. Not just a name-day or birthday, it was the sort of thing they call a jubilee nowadays. The birth of a seventh daughter, maybe, or something else of the kind. But that doesn't matter. The thing was, the royal family else of the kind. But that doesn't matter. The thing was, the royal family council wanted to give the Tsarina a very special sort of gift.

  Of course you know how it is with Tsars - a handkerchief waiting for every sneeze. If the Tsar wanted something special to drink, a merchant rushed up with it, if he wanted a rare dish there'd be another right there. And for gifts they'd a Frenchman called Faberge. He knew all about things of that sort. He'd got his own big workshops for jewels and gems and stone carving, his craftsmen were the finest, and he had a big trade in St. Petersburg and Moscow too.

  The Tsar sent for this Faberge and told him there had to be some very wonderful gift for the Tsarina by such-and-such a day, the sort that would make everyone open their eyes and stare. Of course Faberge bowed and said: “It shall be done,” but inside himself he thought - that's a hard nut to crack. He knew of things to please all, but this wasn't so simple. You couldn't amaze the Tsarina with diamonds or emeralds or other precious stones when she'd got coffers full of them, all the very best. And intricate design and fine craftsmanship were lost on people like that, they didn't understand it. Then, too, there was another thing - that Frenchman knew that ever since nineteen-five the Tsarina couldn't stand the sight of any stone that had red in it. Maybe it made her think of those red flags, or maybe it was something else. Well, for instance, it might have reminded her of pictures on the leaflets folks handed round secretly, showing her and the Tsar feeling about on the ground with hands all red with blood. What it was I don't know and it's not worth bothering about, but certain it is that after nineteen-five you'd better not bring any red stones to the Tsarina, she'd scream her head off, forget all the Russian words she knew and storm at you in German.

  The Frenchman Faberge racked his brains trying to find something to amaze the Tsarina, and with no sign or hint of red in it. He thought and thought, and then he went to his best craftsmen to see if they could think of something. He told them all about it and said: “Well, what do you suggest?”

  Each one had his own ideas, of course, his own way of looking at it all; but there was one old man who said: “To my mind, malachite is the stone ye want. It gives joy to the eye, and there's a power of beauty in it. Show it to the dreariest dullard and he'll brighten up.”

  The Master chided the old man, of course - that was no way to talk, about dreary dullards, when it was a question of a present to the Tsarina, it would get him into trouble. But about the kind of stone he agreed.

  “You're right. Malachite might do very well.”

  The other craftsmen were doubtful.

  “There's no real good stone to be found these days.”

  Well, the Master put his trust in money. “Any kind of stone can be got,” he said, “if you don't haggle over the price.”

  So they settled it all - they'd make an album with malachite covers. And they settled all the ornamentation for it, too, there and then.

  Faberge got to work at once, sent his agent off that very same day to our parts.

  “Don't stint money,” he said, “so long as you get the real stone with a good color.”

  So that agent of Faberge's came and began searching. He tried Gumeshky first, of course. But the stone carvers there had naught to give him - no good stone to be had. He went to Tagil - there he found bits and pieces, but not the right kind. He was getting low-spirited about it all when a miner - and thankful he was to the man - told him what to do.

  “Go to Yevlakha Zhelezko. He's got stone for a certainty. He gave a job to a customer not long ago, it was such work, all the merchants here and that foreigners' office too just shook their fists and stamped about and said: ”Yevlakha had better not show himself here with his stuff. We won't take it no matter how cheap!' But Yevlakha just laughed and gave them back as good. 'Glad enough to be quit of thieves. Time was when I had to stand wi' my hat off in front of 'em. I've not forgotten it, either. Those times won't come again. If anyone wants my stone they can come to me for it, and I'll see who I'll oblige and who I'll show the door to. But those merchants of yours - they needn't bother to come round at all. I'm an old man, but I can land a buffet that'll send one with a conscience weighing a ton flying out like a bird.'“

  Faberge's agent was a bit worried at all this.

  “That Yevlakha doesn't need any money, seemingly. Is he very rich?”

  “No,” the man told him, “there's not much riches to be seen about him, but he knows the worth of his craft. That means more than any money to him. If he doesn't want your order, than you won't charge ye high. And the work - it'll be good enough for an exhibition, good enough for the Tsar's palace. Good enough to show anywhere.”

  The agent felt a bit easier. . . . I've got something to tempt this Yevlakha, he thought, I'll tell him the stone's needed for the Tsar's palace . . . . And he was right, as soon as Yevlakha knew what the stone was for he agreed to sell it. All he said was: “What size stone d'ye want, and what design?”

  The agent told him each slab should be at least fourteen inches long and a bit over five wide, and with a pattern of its own, so they didn't both look alike.

  “Well and good,” said Yevlakha, “I'll find it for ye. Come back in a week.”

  He named his price - two hundred rubles each slab. And the agent didn't bargain, of course. He wanted to say something more, but Yevlakha wasn't one for idle chat and cut him short.

  “I told ye to come back in a week and the covers were ready, and not just two, but four of them. They were like grass in springtime when the sun shines on it and the wind sends it rippling-green. And each one had its own design. Not a tendril of pattern on one was exactly like another, but they were chosen so that even one who had no knowledge of carving could tell which ones belonged together. Real skilled work, it was.

  Yevlakha laid them out.

  “Choose which ye want.”

  Faberge's agent understood stone, of course. He looked them over, couldn't find a single flaw, and admired the design.

  “I'll buy them all,” he said.

  “As ye will,” said the old man. “Take 'em if ye want 'em. Hand over the money.”

  The agent made haste to pay the price agreed on and went back to St. Petersburg again. Faberge's workmen all praised the covers to the skies, but that old craftsman who had advised trying malachite had a few doubts.

  “It looks a bit like stone that's been made, not the natural stone,” he said. “Stone that's been put together.”

  The other men laughed - the old 'un's being clever, trying to show off all he knows. And the Master said right out: “If it's artificial, it's no worse than natural stone, and that makes the skill of it worth even more.”

  Well, they prepared the album and all wondered at it. And the Tsar, as soon as he heard there was another pair of covers, gave orders that nothing was to be done with them without his orders. So they lay there in Faberge's workshop until some very great people came from France to visit the Tsar. And with these great ones came a man skilled in making artificial diamonds. The diamond cutters and stone carvers at Peterhof, and Faberge's men too, were all agog to ask him this and that. They followed him about like lads after a pretty maid, trying to find ways to please him. Someone thought of showing him the stone carving in the Tsar's palace. They got permission. And there with all the other things he saw Yevlakha's covers. He wondered at the beauty of the stone, sighed and said: “Eh, but they're well off, those craftsmen of yours! Just cut the stone without taking any thought, and there's a miracle all ready and waiting for you.”

  Our men explained it wasn't always as simple as that, the pieces of stone had to be fitted together.

  “That I know,” he said, “and tedious work it is, but all the same there's no great art in it when you've got stone with any pattern ready to your hand.”

  Then one of the craftsmen told him: “We've been arguing about those covers at our workshops, whether they're real stone or artificial.”

  That made the Frenchman jump as though he was stung. He forgot all his airs, he ran and fussed round them and kept asking who'd said it and why, what were the signs? And how had it all ended? But what he most wanted to know was where the craftsman lived who's made them. Of course he was surprised to find nobody could tell him anything much about it. All they could say was that the agent had brought them from some village or other. They'd heard the craftsman was a crotchety sort, if you didn't take him the right way he could deal you a good buffet, but what his name was they'd never been told. The agent could say, of course, but he was away on some business for the Master.

  Next day the Frenchman went to Faberge at his workshops and started asking more about the covers. The old malachite carver made no secret of it, he said why he had doubts and the others started arguing, each one trying to show he was right and the rest wrong. Then Faberge himself came in, listened to it all, jabbered something to the Frenchman in his own tongue, and told some of the men to bring in the spare covers.

  “Why waste time in talk,” he said, “We'll saw off the corners on the right-hand sides and test them. It won't hurt the covers, we can round them off or cover the place with some sort of ornament; and them we'll know for certain whether the stone's real or made.”

  They soon had the corners off and began testing them with acid, and grinding them down, and weighing them. They did everything they could think of, but still they got nowhere. The composition was like malachite, and yet not exactly the same. Most were inclined to think the old man hadn't been so far out when he said there was something not quite right about that stone.

  The French craftsman was more eager than any, he brought all sorts of books along and kept looking in them. And when they decided the stone was hand-made, he went straight to the office. They must have the name of the maker somewhere there. And sure enough, a receipt turned up - for two thousand rubles, paid for four malachite slabs of such-and-such a size, and then a sort of hook instead of a signature because Yevlakha could not write; underneath was a clerk's signature and the district seal. The agent had stolen a good bit for himself the usual way - paid Yevlakha eight hundred, slipped a hundred or two to the clerk, and dropped the rest into his own pocket.

  They sent a telegram to the agent asking for the full name and address of the man who'd made the covers for the Tsarina's album. The agent must have thought his swindling had come to light, because he didn't answer. So the Master himself sent a letter, a real angry one - what are you thinking of? How dare you make a fool of me in front of guests from abroad? Then the agent wrote back - such-and-such a village, everybody there knows him, I can't remember his full name but the villagers call him Yevlakha.

  As soon as that letter came, the Frenchman packed in a hurry and took the train. In town he hired a troika and drove to the village, put up at the inn and asked right away where the malachite carver lived. The first person he asked told him - in Penkovka Lane, the fifth or maybe the ninth gate after the big lane, on the right.

  Next day he took the way he'd been told. He was dressed French fashion, o course, with yellow boots and green summer gloves and a hat like a bucket, all white with a black satin ribbon round it. Nobody'd ever seen the like in our village, and of course all the children came running to look at the fine gentleman in the white hat. The Frenchman went along to Penkovka, and saw at once it wasn't one of those streets where the good houses stood. He began to think he'd missed the way. So he asked the children.

  “Whereabouts does the man live who carves malachite?”

  Of course they were quick and willing to help, they all started shouting at once and pointing - there, that hut, that's where Grandad Yevlakha lives.

  The Frenchman looked, he was a bit surprised, but he went into the yard. There he saw an old man sitting in the porch. Tall, he was, but thin in the face and sick-looking. He'd a thick grey beard cut like a spade, with a greenish tinge to it. He was in his old house clothes - trousers of cotton ticking, his bare feet in galoshes, and an old waistcoat all stained with acid on top of his shirt. Just then he was busy whittling something out of pine bark, and a little boy who might be his grandson was saying: “Make me a better float than Mityunka's Grandad, won't ye?”

  Some of the old man's household were outside and when they saw the visitor they started whispering. But Yevlakha just sat there as though none of it concerned him. It wasn't his way to bow and scrape before customers from town, he kept them in their places.

  That foreign craftsman stood by the gate looking round, then he went up to the porch, took off his white hat and asked with all his French politeness - might be inquire if you please whether he could see Monsieur the Craftsman Yefliaque who made the things of the malakeet.

  Yevlakha could hear from his talk he was from some other land so he answered him friendly-like.

  “Look your fill, I it pleases ye. I'm that malachite craftsman. There's only one left now in our village. The old 'uns, they've all died off and the young 'uns aren't ripe yet. Only my name isn't Fliaque, but plain Yevlampy Petrovich, known as Zhelezko, and in the book I'm written Medvedyev.”

  The Frenchman didn't understand a half or a quarter of it all, but he kept nodding, and pulled off his green gloves and shook hands with Yevlakha, and said something like - he was glad to know him, and please excuse him and accept his apologies for any lack of courtesy, for not knowing his proper name. And he tried to explain who he was, and that he was a master craftsman working in diamonds.

  Yevlakha had a good word to say for that.

  “There's naught ye can say against stones like those,” he said. “It's right they should cost the most of all, for they give joy to the eye. To each stone its own virtue.”

  The Frenchman kept nodding and nodding, and jabbering in his queer way - glad to be able to have this talk, he'd come especially from the French land for it. But Yevlakha joked it all off.

  “If it's a good word ye've brought ye're welcome, and if it's a bad one, the gate's open and the way out's clear.”

  Then Yevlakha led his guest inside. He told his daughter-in-law to light the samovar, and put a bottle on the table. Made the visitor welcome, that is. They talked a bit, but all the time that foreign craftsman kept wanting to take a look at Yevlakha's workshop. The old man found that a bit fishy, but he didn't show it.

  “Why not?” he said. “I don't make false money there. Come and look all ye want.”

  So out they went. Yevlakha took the visitor through the kitchen garden to the workshop. It was just a shed, not very big. The door was wide enough, but you had to bow your head to get in. that wasn't stopping the Frenchman, though, he didn't bother about dirtying his fine white hat but pushed in ahead of his host. Yevlakha wasn't too pleased . . . . Look at that, all in a rush! Thinks I'm going to tell him the lot!

  Inside the workshop there was the usual wheel and turning stones, and an iron stove. It wasn't specially clean, of course, but everything was laid out tidily, stone here, mountain-green there, crushed slag, powdered coal and so on. The Frenchman looked at it all, picked up this and that, and seemed to be searching for something he couldn't find. Yevlakha just laughed.

  “There's no cement here. I don't use it.”

  He kept peering about, that Frenchman did, but his eyes didn't help him. Then Yevlakha went to the bench, pulled out a box and tipped out at least a hundred slabs of malachite.

  “Take a look, Master, at what I make of that dirt.”

  The Frenchman began turning over the slabs and saw they were different colors and different patterns. He marveled how they came that way, but Yevlakha laughed at him again.

  “I look out my window on to the meadow there. It gives me color and pattern. Ye see it this way when there's sun, and that way when there's rain. In spring it's one thing, in summer another, in autumn it's different again, but always it's got beauty. And of that beauty there's no end.”

  The visitors tried to get out of him how the stone was made, but Yevlakha wasn't being caught like that, he put him off with words that told naught.

  “There's all sorts of ways. Times ye take more of one thing, times more of another. Ye can bake it or boil it and sometimes ye just mix it.”

  “But what tools do you use?” asked the Frenchman and Yevlakha answered: “The usual ones - hands.”

  The foreigner shook his head and smiled all over his face and started flattering Yevlakha.

  “Magic hands, Yefliaque Petrosh! Magic hands!”

  “Nay, there's no magic about it, but I don't complain.”

  The Frenchman saw flattery wouldn't help him any more than cunning; so he pulled two banknotes out of his pocket, a thousand rubles each they were, with Peter the Great's head on them, and put them on the bench.

  “I'll pay a thousand if you'll tell me honestly all about it,” he said, “and if you'll show me I'll give double.”

  Yevlakha looked at Peter's picture on the notes.

  “A good ruler he was, none other like him, but one thing he didn't teach us - to sell our souls. Pick up your money, Master, and go your ways back where ye came from.”

  The Frenchman kept arguing and persisting, of course - what was the matter? Was he offended at something?

  Well, then Zhelezko lost his temper and gave his visitor some straight words.

  “You, with your white hat, calling yourself a craftsman! Tell you - why, ye'd sell it to the first that gives you a hat and gloves. Ye'd put snot in a gold setting and sell it as malachite for five rubles. D'ye understand that? Snot instead of our stone that holds the joy of the earth! But ye won't, never! We can use that stone ourselves. And we'll make things of such beauty, folks'll come from all ends of the world to set eye on them. And it'll be our work! Made wi' these hands!”

  So the foreign craftsman got naught out of Zhelezko. But he did get the covers from Faberge. The great folks he was with talked the Tsar into making a gift of them.

  Zhelezko died during the Civil War. There were still some who weren't sure how it would all end, but Zhelezko kept on saying: “Never you doubt it - workers' hands can do all! Some they'll grind to powder, some they'll gather up grain by grain and smooth them out carefully, and then ye'll have a whole stone of joy and beauty like none have ever seen. For the world to wonder at. And to learn from, too.”

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