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The Bailiff's Bootsoles

2006-07-13 23:27

  There was a bailiff in Polevaya once called Severyan Kondratych. Eh, what a ruffian he was, what a ruffian! They'd never known the like since there'd been mines and mills there. A hound, he was, and worse. A wild beast.

  He knew little enough about the work, but when it came to knocking folks about, that he was real good at. He came from the gentry, he'd had villages of his own but he'd lost them. And all because of his savage ways. He beat a lot of men to death, and some of them were from other estates. So then it got known, couldn't be hushed up. He was tried and the judge gave him his choice - either Siberia, or else our mines here. And the Turchaninovs, our masters - a butcher like that was just right for them. They put him over Polevaya at once. “Be so good and be so kind, put a strong curb on the folks there. And if you happen to kill any, no one'll try ye for it in those parts. So long as they're quietened down a bit; for you see the sort of thing they've been doing.”

  Just before that some of the men in Polevaya had sat the old bailiff down on a red-hot ingot - and done it so he died within the hour. Of course there'd been plenty of floggings for it, but it never came to light who'd done it.

  “No one put him there. He sat down himself. Got dizzy with the fumes, mebbe, didn't rightly know what he was doing. We took him off as quick as we could, but all his bottom was burnt right to the inside. God's will, it must ha' been, that he got his death from the bottom.”

  After that the Master looked for a proper hell-hound to strike fear in folks. So that butcher Severyan was made bailiff. He was bold enough, but all the same, he knew a mining village isn't like an ordinary village, he'd have to take care. Folks are always close together, not much room, and there's the fire in the workshops. And every man with something in his hand. . . .

  So Severyan hired body-guards. Where he dug them up I don't know. Each one stronger and fiercer than the other. And real vermin. Brigands from lawless parts. Well, he took that band with him when he went to the workshops. He'd stalk along in front of them all. In his pocket a pistol with four barrels loaded and primed - naught to do but pull it out. And then came that band after him. Some with clubs, some with sabers, and some with pistols too. Just like they were going off to battle somewhere.

  First of all he'd ask the foreman: “Who's working badly?”

  The foreman knew if he spoke well of all he'd start looking for something wrong. He'd name one and name another, it might be fore something real or it might be for something that didn't just suit himself or it might be for nothing at all. So long as the whip fell on other backs, not his. He'd speak bad of this one and that, and then the bailiff would start raging about. Flog them himself, he would. He really enjoyed tormenting folks, it was better than meat and drink to him. That's what he was like. A butcher.

  He didn't go down the Copper Mountain mine at first, though. It's fearsome underground for one not used to it, whoever he is. First there's the darkness, and you can't got more light. If the Master himself came down he'd have only the same lamp. You don't know whether it's really burning or only looks like it. And then there's the wet, too. And the folks working down there, they care for naught, it's the same to them whether they live or die. Ready for anything, they are, and they're the ones that bother the masters the most. Then too, Severyan had heard the Copper Mountain had its Mistress. And that she didn't like it when folks were treated ill underground. So Severyan was a bit afraid. But at last he plucked up courage and down he went with all his band following. Well, then it started. Seemed like he'd got twice as savage. Before that the bailiffs waited till the miners came up to flog them. But now he started a new style. He'd lay on right there at the face with his whip or whatever came to hand. He'd go down every day, and it was always the same - he tried to see how many men he could ill-treat. If he'd beaten plenty, then he'd feel real gay. He'd stroke his whiskers and growl at the overseer: “Well, old bag o' bones, get the cage ready. Swung my arm a bit, time for dinner.”

  He raged about the mine like that for a week. And then something happened. He'd just told the overseer to get the cage ready when he heard a voice, clear and ringing as though it were quite close.

  “Take care, Severyan, that you don't leave your bootsoles as a remembrance for your children!”

  The bailiff jumped.

  “Who said that?” He turned towards the voice, and fell down so he nearly broke his legs. Because they were fixed as though they'd been nailed. He could hardly pull them up. And the voice had been a woman's. That made the bailiff a bit bothered, but he didn't show it. He just went on as if he hadn't heard it. And his band of ruffians kept quiet too, but you could see the heart was out of them. They'd guessed at once - it was she who'd warned the bailiff.

  Well, all right. He stopped going down the mine. The men had a chance to breathe easy for a bit. But not for long. Severyan was ashamed, you see. What if the workers had heard that voice and were laughing at him? Saying Severyan was afraid? That was sharper than a knife for him, for he'd always boasted the feared naught.

  One day he went into the rolling shop and someone shouted: “Watch your bootsoles!” That was a saying they had, to warm folks to look out. But the bailiff thought: They're making a mock of me. It got him real mad. He didn't try to find the man who'd spoken. He didn't even beat anyone that day, he stopped there in the middle of the shop and said to his men: “We haven't been down the pit for a long while. Time to pull things up there.”

  So they went down. And the bailiff, he was in such a fury as he'd never been before. Beat up everyone he saw. He wanted to show there was naught could scare him. And then came the same voice again.

  “For the second time, Severyan, I warn ye. Think of your children. Only the soles of your boots will be left them.”

  The bailiff turned round and fell, just like the other time. He couldn't get his feet off the ground. He looked down, and there they were sunk nearly an inch in the rock, looked like it would take a pick to get them out.

  He did manage it all the same, but his topboots were gasping in front, with the soles hanging loose.

  The bailiff got a bit quiet, but when he came out on top he plucked up heart. He turned and asked his men: “Did ye hear aught? Down there in the pit?”

  “Aye, we heard it,” they said.

  “And did ye see how my feet got stuck?”

  “Aye, we saw that too.”

  “And what d'ye think - what does it mean?”

  Well, they hemmed and hawed, then one of them came right out with it.

  “It looks like the Mistress of the Copper Mountain was giving ye a kind of hint. Sort of threatening something, but what it is, I don't know.”

  “Well then, harken to me,” said Severyan. “Get ready to go down tomorrow as soon as it's light. I'll teach them to try and frighten me, and hide some wench in the mine. I'll go through every gallery till I catch her, and then I'll drive the soul from her body with five strokes of this whip. Ye hear me?”

  He started bragging the same way to his goodwife when he got home. Well, she was a woman so she started to weep.

  “Eh dear, eh dear, take care of yourself, Severyan, husband! Let's send for the priest, so he can arm ye against uncanny powers.”

  They did send for the priest. He sang and he prayed and he hung a holy medal round Severyan's neck and sprinkled holy water over his pistol.

  “Have no fear, Severyan Kondratych,” he said, “and if anything should happen, then say the prayer: 'O Lord our God, arise.'”

  The bailiff's band of ruffians were at the pithead the next morning at down. They were all white in the face, only the bailiff strutted about like a cock. He'd got his shoulders back and his chest thrust forward, and new topboots and his legs shining like mirrors. And he kept slapping those boots with his whip.

  “If the soles are torn off again,' he said, ”I'll give the overseer something for not having the muck cleared away. he may have been working twenty years, but I'll flay the hide off him all the same. And you try to get a sight o' that wench. There's fifty rubles for whoever catches her.“

  Well, they went down and started poking about everywhere. The bailiff was in front as usual, with his band following. But the galleries were narrow, so they had to go one after the other. All of a sudden the bailiff saw a figure in front of him. It was moving lightly, waving a lamp. At the turn of the gallery he saw it was a woman. The bailiff shouted to her to stop, but she went on as if she hadn't heard him. He started running after her, but his faithful men weren't in any great hurry to follow. They were all shaking. Because they saw this was bad - it was she herself. But they didn't dare go back either, Severyan would have them beaten to death. The bailiff kept running, but he couldn't seem to catch that woman. He bawled, of course, and threatened, but she didn't even look round. There was nobody working in that gallery, not a soul.

  Suddenly the woman turned, and at once it got light. The bailiff saw a maid of amazing beauty standing before him, and her brows were drawn together in a line and her eyes blazed like burning coals.

  “Well,” she said, “now let us settle accounts, butcher! I warned you to make and end, but you - what did you do? Boasted ye'd drive the soul from my body with five strokes of your whip! And what d'ye say now?”

  But Severyan bawled: “I'll do worse than that. Hey, Vanka, Yefimka, seize that wench, drag her out of here, the hussy!”

  He shouted for his men, he thought they were close by, but then all of a sudden his feet were stuck again.

  He yelled in a frenzy: “Hey, come here!”

  “You can spare your voice,” said the maid. “There is no way here for your men. In a moment many of them will not be with the living.”

  She gave a bit of a wave with her hand. And then he heard the gallery collapse behind him and the wind roared past. The bailiff looked behind him and saw a solid wall, just as if there'd never been a gallery there at all.

  “Now what do you say?” asked the Mistress again.

  But the bailiff was in a rage and the priest had made him feel secure, so he pulled out his pistol.

  “This is what I say!” And bang! - he fired one barrel - right at the Mistress! But she just caught the bullet with her hand, tossed it against the bailiff's knee and said quietly: “To that place he is no more.” She said it like she was giving an order. And the next moment the bailiff was covered with green stone right up to his knees. Well, then of course he started to howl.

  “Oh kind, sweet maid, forgive me, have mercy! I'll teach my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to bless you! I'll go away from here. I'll repent all my sins!”

  He kept on roaring and howling, and tears ran down his face. The Mistress was so disgusted she spat.

  “Ugh, you foul insect, worthless trash! Can't even die decently. It turns my stomach to look at ye.”

  She stretched out her hand and the stone rose right over the bailiff's head. There was just a great green block standing in his place. The Mistress went up, gave it a little push and it tumbled over. And then she melted away like mist.

  There was a great running about in the mine. After all, a whole gallery had fallen, and the one where the bailiff and his men had gone. No joke, that. All the folk were driven down and started digging the rock away. Two days later they dug as far as the body-guards. And here was a strange thing - the ones that had been the worst of all were dead, but the ones that had been the worst of all were dead, but the ones that had had even a mite of decency, they were only hurt.

  They found all those men, but they couldn't find the bailiff. Then they came to some place nobody had ever seen before. And there in the middle was a great hunk of malachite lying on its side. They started looking at it and saw one end was polished.

  Here's a marvel, they thought. Who's been polishing malachite in this place?…… They took a better look and saw two bootsoles, in the very middle of the polished part. Quite new, they were, you could see all the nails. Three rows of them. They told the Master about it. Now, he was an old man and hadn't been down for many a year, but he wanted to see this. So he ordered them to get the malachite out just as it was. What a job they had with it! But they got it up in the end. And the old Master - when he saw those bootsoles, he burst into tears.

  “What a faithful servant he was to me!” he cried, then he said: “The body must be freed from the stone and buried with honour.”

  They sent off at once to Mramor for the best stone cutter. Kostousov was famous then. They brought him alone and the Master asked him: “Can ye get the body out of this stone, and without spoiling it?”

  The stone cutter examined it.

  “And who'll get the stone?” he asked.

  “You can keep that for yourself,” said the Master, “and I'll pay for the work, I won't stint the cost.”

  “Well,” said Kostousov, “I can make a try at it. It's real good stone, ye don't often see stone like that. The only thing is, our work takes time. If I cut through to the body at once, it'll stink. I'll have to start by taking off the outside, but that'll mean malachite going to waste.”

  When he heard that the Master flew into a rage.

  “It's not malachite ye've got to think of,” he said, “but how to get the body of my faithful servant out undamaged.”

  “Well, that's how ye look at it,” said Kostousov.

  You see, he was a free man, so he could talk free too. He started getting out the body. First he took off the outside and carried the malachite home. Then he started cutting through to the body. And what do you think? Wherever there had once been body or clothes, there was just plain rock, and round it was first-class malachite.

  All the same, the Master had that dirt buried like a man. But Kostousov was real disappointed.

  “If I'd known,” he said, “I'd have sawn through the hunk at once. All that good stone lost because of the bailiff, and see what's left of him! Just the soles of his boots.”

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