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The Serpent's Trail

2006-07-14 00:16

  Levonty's two lads, the one the Serpent showed the way to gold, soon began to prosper. Their father died, but just the same each year was better than the last. They built a hut - not over grand, just an ordinary wellbuilt hut. Then they bought a cow and a horse, and in winter they'd three sheep under the roof. Right glad their mother was to see a little ease and comfort in her old age.

  All this came from the good services of the old man, Semyonich. His was the head that guided them. He taught the boys how to dispose of the gold so the office wouldn't take note or the other prospectors look at them with envy. Guile was needed for handling gold, a man must have eyes all round. There were others seeking it, there were merchants like vultures, and the office watching you too. You had to be clever. How could children find their way about in it all? But Semyonich told them what to do. Taught them the ways of it.

  And so it went on. The boys got big but they still washed gold in the same place. The other prospectors stayed round about too. They didn't get much, but still it was something. But the boys, they did real well. Even started to put a bit away.

  But then the men on top noticed - two orphans, and not at all badly off. So one day - it was a holiday and their mother was just taking fish pies out of the oven - a messenger appeared.

  “You've got to go to the bailiff. At once, he said.”

  They went, and the bailiff began bawling at them.

  “How long d'ye think you're going to idle? Just look at ye - tall as flag-poles and never done a day's work for the Master yet! Who let ye off? Want to try the fit of a soldier's cap?”

  Of course the boys explained.

  “Our father, God rest his soul, the Master himself freed because he was past his work. And so we thought - ”

  “It's not for you to think! Show me the paper that says you're free!”

  The boys hadn't any paper, of course, so they didn't know what to say. Then the bailiff told them: “Bring five hundred each and I'll give ye the papers.”

  He was probing, like, to see if the lads would say they'd got money. But they stood firm.

  'If we sold all we've got, to the last thread,“ said the younger, ”it wouldn't bring the half.“

  “If that's the way, then you go to work tomorrow morning. The supervisor'll tell ye where to go. And see you're not late for getting your task. If you are, ye'll get the whip on your first day.”

  Down in the mouth they were, those boys of ours. And when they told their mother she started weeping and lamenting.

  “Oh misery! How shall we keep alive now?”

  Their neighbours and relations all came. Some counseled writing to the Master, some said they ought to go to town, to the real big men over the mines, and some added up how much they could get if they sold everything they had. And others put fear in them, saying: “While you're talking and arguing here, the bailiff's men will take ye by the collar, flog ye and push ye into the mines. Put ye in chains there too. And then see how far you'll get in seeking justice!”

  Some said this and some said that, but none so much as thought that maybe the boys might have five times as much as the bailiff said but fear to show it. Even their mother knew naught of it. When Semyonich was still among the living he'd warned them many a time: “Tell none of the gold put by, and especially tell no woman. Mother, wife, sweetheart - say no word to any. Ye never know what can happen. The guards from the mine can come, make a search, threaten this and that. A woman might have a close mouth in the ordinary way, but she'll be afraid for her son or her husband and show the place where it's hid. And that's just what the guards want. They'll take the gold and get rid of the man. And the woman, she'll just throw herself in the water or put a rope round her neck. I've known it happen. So be cautious! When ye grow up and wed, bear it will in mind. As for your mother, not a hint of it to her. She can never hold her tongue, she likes to boast of her children.”

  The boys took good heed of Semyonich's counsel and said no word to any of their hoard. The others prospectors guessed, of course, that the boys must have something put away, but how much and where, none knew.

  So the neighbours talked the matter over this way and that, they felt for the two, but the end of it all was, they would have to go to work next morning.

  “No way out of it.”

  As soon as all were gone, the younger lad said: “Come, Brother, let's go to the gold-fields. Take a last took at our place. . . . .”

  The other guessed what was in his mind.

  “Why not, let's go,” he said. “The fresh air will mebbe make us feel easier.”

  Their mother put something together from the Sunday meal for them to eat on the way, and slipped in a pickle or two. They took a bottle as well, of course, and set off for the Ryabinovka.

  They walked a good while with no word spoken. When the path turned into the woods, the elder brother said: “We'll hide here a bit.”

  They turned sharp off the path and lay down behind some briars. They drank a glassful each, then lay quiet and listened. Someone was coming. They peered out and saw Vanka Sochen plodding along the path with his pan and tools. Like as if he was off real early to the fields. Got a sudden craving for work, couldn't even wait to finish his bottle. Now that Sochen, he was an office cur, if they smelt a rat anywhere they sent him sniffing round. Folks had known that a long time. He'd been beaten more than once, but he still kept on. A real pest. The Mistress of the Copper Mountain herself gave him his quittance later on, and in such wise that he lay under the sod. Aye, but that's no matter here…… Well, along came that Sochen and the brothers winked at each other. Then the foreman passed on horseback. They waited a bit more, and Pimenov himself rolled past, driving his Yorshik. He'd got rods fastened to his light cart, as if he was going fishing.

  Pimenov was the most daring of those that bought gold secretly those days in Polevaya. And everyone knew Yorshik. A racer from the steppes, he was. Not so very big, but he'd leave any three-span behind. Where could Pimenov have got hold of him? Folks used to say he'd got two hearts and two pairs of lungs. He'd gallop fifty versts and be fresh at the end of it. Try to catch a horse like that! A real thief's horse. There's a lot of tales told about him. And his master was a stout, lusty fellow, not the kind you'd want to start a fight with. Not like those heirs of his that live in that big two-storey house over there.

  When the two lads saw that fisherman they had to laugh. Then the younger one stood up behind the briars and called him - not too loud, though, a bit careful.

  “Ivan Vasilyevich, have you your scales with ye?”

  The merchant saw the lad was laughing and gave back jest for jest.

  “Hard if I couldn't find any in the woods here! If there was something to weigh on 'em.”

  Then he reined Yorshik in. “If you've aught for me, get in, I'll set ye on your way.”

  That was how he always did it - bought gold with the horse ready. He knew what Yorshik could do. He'd only to say: “Yorshik - you'll get the whip!” and next minute there'd be naught but a spatter of mud or a cloud of dust.

  “We haven't it with us,” the lads said, and then asked: “Where'll we find ye tomorrow morning early, Ivan Vasilyevich?”

  “What have ye got - something worth while, or just a pinch?” the merchant asked.

  “As if you didn't know. . . .”

  “Oh, I know all right, but I don't know all. I don't know if you both want to buy yourselves free. Or only one to start with.”

  He waited a minute, and then he went on - sort of warning them.

  “Take care, lads, they're watching ye. Did you see Sochen?”

  “Aye, we saw him.”

  “And the foreman?”

  “We saw him too.”

  “They've maybe sent others. And there might be some smelling round on their own account. They all know you need to get money by the morn, so they're spying. I came specially to warn ye.”

  “And thank ye kindly, but we've got our own eyes open too.”

  “Aye, I can see you've got heads on your shoulders, but all the same - take care.”

  “Are you afraid it'll slip away from ye?”

  “Nay, I've naught to fret about. There's none other would buy it, they'd be afraid.”

  “What'll you pay?”

  Pimenov pushed the price down, of course. A hawk, after all. That sort don't let go their prey.

  “That's all I'll give,” he said, “there may be trouble.”

  So the bargain was struck. Pimenov whispered: “At dawn I'll drive by the dyke and pick ye up.” He shook the reins. “Get on, Yorshik, catch the foreman!” Then he asked the lads: “D'ye want money for both or for one?”

  “We don't know how much we'll be able to scrape up,” said the younger. “Bring plenty, anyway.”

  The merchant drove away.

  The lads were quiet a while, then the younger one said: “Pimenov spoke good sense, Brother. We'd better not show too much money all at once. It might end badly. They'd just take it and that's all.”

  “Aye, that's right. But what'll we do, then?”

  “Mebbe this way. We'll go to the bailiff again, we'll beg him humbly to take a bit less. Then we'll say we can't get more than four hundred even if we sell all we've got. He'll let one of us go for four hundred, you'll see, and folks'll think we've given our last.”

  “That 'ud be all right,” said the elder, “but who's to stay a serf? Looks like we'll have to draw lots.”

  Then the younger one started to cajole his brother.

  “Aye, draw lots, that 'ud be the best way, of course. Then none can complain. No two words about it. . . . Though - there's one thing. You've got an injury. One eye's no good. . . . If you got in their ill books they did never make a soldier of ye, but what 'ud save me? The first thing and they'd send me off. And good bye to freedom then. But if you could stand it a bit, I'd soon buy ye free. Before a year's past I'll go to the bailiff, and no matter what he asks, I'll pay it. Ye can rest easy about that. D'ye think I've no conscience? We've found it together. How could I grudge it?”

  Now, the elder brother, Pantelei, was a simple, good-natured young fellow. He'd give the shirt off his back to one who needed it. And then that blemish, his injured eye, it seemed to have crushed him down. He was sort of quiet, and went about as if everyone was better and cleverer than he was. Not a word to say for himself.

  The other lad, Kostka, was a bird of a different feather. Though he'd grown up poor, he was a proper figure of a man, tall and sturdy, good enough to put in a show. The only thing not so good was his carroty hair, real red it was. When he wasn't there folks always called him Red Kostka. And sly he was, too. And those who had dealings with him used to say: “Don't put your faith in every word ye hear from Kostka.” And for making up to anyone - he knew just the way to go about it. Like a cat, rubbing and rubbing against you.

  He soon got round his brother, of course. So it all went as he said. The bailiff knocked a hundred off the price, and the next day Kostka had a free man's paper, and claimed he'd made things easier for his brother too. The bailiff had Pantelei sent to the Krylatovskoye field.

  “It's right what your brother says. It's the sort of work you're used to - mostly washing sand. And whether it's here or there, I've a need o' men. I don't mind doing ye a kindness. Go to Krylatovskoye.”

  So Kostka fixed it all up as he wanted. Got himself free and packed his brother off to a distant gold-field. Of course he'd no thought of selling the hut and holding. That was just talk.

  Now he was rid of Pantelei, Kostka wanted to go back to the Ryabinovka. But how'd he manage alone? The only way was to hire a man, but that he feared to do. If things leaked out, others would be coming to the place. But he found one to suit. A bit lacking, he was. A tall, strong fellow, but couldn't count to ten. Just what Kostka needed.

  He started off with this zany, but soon saw the place was getting worked out. He tried a bit higher, a bit lower, and on this side and that, but still there was no gold. Just a bit of color here and there, not worth washing for. So Kostka decided to cross over to the other bank and try the place under the birch tree where the Serpent had stopped. It was a bit better there, but not what it had been when Pantelei was with him. Still, Kostka was glad to get that much, and he'd outwitted the Serpent too, he thought.

  Other prospectors saw where Kostka had gone, and decided to try their own luck on the other bank. And they seemed to be getting something. So before a mouth had gone, there was a whole crowd on the spot. Folks even came from a long way off.

  Some of the prospectors worked in parties, and there was a maid in one of them. She was red-headed too, a bit thin, but she drew the ye. When you've a maid like that, the sun shines even if it's raining. Now Kostka had loose ways, he might have been the bailiff or the Master himself. He'd given many a maid living at home with her parents cause to weep, and this was just a miner lass. So Kostka went right ahead, and burned his fingers.

  The maid was young, simple in her ways, but he couldn't get near her all the same. Spirited, she was. Give her one word and you'd get back two, and both of them mockery. And as for touching her - better not try it. So there was Kostka like a fish on a hook. Went about moping, couldn't sleep at night. She'd got him twisted round her little finger.

  There are maids who can do that real well. Where they learn it all I don't know. You see one - the milk's not yet dried on her lips, but she knows all the tricks. Kostka had always fooled them to the top of his bent, but now he changed his tune.

  “Will you be my wife?” he said. “So it's not just anyway with us, but all honest and lawful. . . . I'll buy ye free.”

  But that maid, she just laughed at him.

  “If you hadn't such red hair, now.”

  That stung Kostka, he didn't like it when they called him Red-Head, but he tried to joke it off.

  “And what about yourself?”

  “That's why I fear to wed you,” she said, “I'm carroty, you're red, the children 'ud set the house afire.”

  Then she starting praising Pantelei. She knew him a bit, she'd met him at the Krylatovskoye field.

  “If it was Pantelei asking me, I'd wed at once. He caught my fancy. A proper lad. He may have only one eye, but it's a good one.”

  She said it just to torment Kostka, but he believed it. He ground his teeth, he could have torn Pantelei to pieces, and to make it worse, she went on with: “Why don't you buy your brother free? You panned the gold together, and now you're free and pushed him off to the back o' beyond.”

  “I've no money for him,” said Kostka. “Let him find it himself.”

  “Ye shameless knave! Did Pantelei work less than you? Wasn't it mining he lost his eye?”

  She got Kostka so wrought up he shouted: “I'll kill ye, ye jade!”

  “Let that be as it may,” she said, “but you'll never get me living. Red-haired and false - there's naught worse.”

  That was the way she flouted Kostka, but he kept after her all the more. He'd have given her anything in the world if she'd have stopped calling him Red-Head and looked at him a bit more kindly. But she'd have none of his gifts, not even the smallest thing. And she'd sting him with a tongue like a dagger.

  “You'd do better to save that for buying Pantelei free!”

  Then Kostka thought to give a big feast at the mine. He was clever, that fellow. When they all get drunk, he thought, there'll be none to mark who does what. I'll lure her away somewhere, and we'll see what tune she'll sing in the morning.

  Of course, folks had their own ideas about it all.

  “What come over our Red-Head? He must have made a strike. Better try that place where he is.”

  They might think this or that, but who'll refuse feasting with naught to pay? The maid, she came too. And in the dancing she stopped before Kostka in the ring, inviting him to step out with her. Folks say she was a real lightsome dancer. And Kostka, it just wrung his vitals.

  But he didn't forget his plan. When all had drunk well, he seized hold of the maid, but she looked at him with such eyes that his hands fell and his legs shook, and fear took him.

  Then she said: “Red-Haired and shameless, will ye buy Pantelei free?”

  That was like scalding water on Kostka. He flew into a rage.

  “Nay, that I won't,” he shouted. “I'd sooner drink it all, to the last kopek!”

  “As you will,” she said. “I've told ye. And as for drink, we'll help ye with that.”

  Off she went, dancing. She bent and twisted like a serpent and her eyes were fixed, unwinking. After that Kostka started to give feasts like that nearly every week. And it costs a bit to treat fifty or so till they're merry. Miner folks can hold plenty. No good trying to stint, or you'll be a laughing-stock, men will say: “Drained an empty mug at Kostka's feast and had a headache all week. Next time I'll take a couple o' bottles with me. Mebbe I'll feel better.”

  So Kostka saw to it there was wine and all the rest a-plenty. The gold he had soon flowed away and he was getting but a mite. Again there was no gleam in the sand, seek as he would. Even the zany who worked with him said: “Seems there's naught to be washed here, Master.”

  Well, that maid, she just tongue-lashed him on.

  “Down i' the mouth, are ye, Red-Head? Danced the heels off your boots and no money left for the cobbler?”

  Kostka knew he was riding to ruin, but he couldn't stop himself. You just wait, he thought, I'll show you whether I've enough for the cobbler or not. . . .

  There'd been a deal of gold he and Pantelei had put by. They'd buried it the usual way, in their kitchen garden, deep under the ground. You dug down through the topsoil, and then came sand and clay. That's where they'd put it. They'd marked the place well, of course, measured it all to the inch. Even if it was found sometime, the mine watchmen couldn't do a thing to them. “A nugget?” they'd say. “Who'd ever ha' thought there was gold here? There we were seeking it in far places, and it lay right in our own garden!”

  The place was as safe as it could be, but to get the gold out, that was bothersome, and they had to keep a sharp watch, too. But they'd thought all that out as well. They'd set bushes behind the bath-house, and pile of stones, so it was all hard to see.

  Now Kostka chose a dark right and went to his hiding place. He took off the topsoil, then filled a tub with sand, and carried it into the bath-house. He'd water there, all ready. He shut the window, lighted a lantern and started washing the sand. But not a thing could he find, not a grain of gold. What's this, he thought. Have I made a mistake? Out he went again, measured everything, and dug up another tubful. Not a speck. Then Kostka forgot all his care, he dashed out with the lantern. Cheeked everything again. All quite right. He's dug at the exact spot. So he started getting out some more. Maybe I didn't go deep enough, he thought. This time there was a grain or two. He went still deeper and the same thing - just a gleam. Then Kostka fell into a frenzy, he started driving a shaft as they do in mines. But before he got very far he came up against solid rock. Real glad he was to see that, for not even the Serpent himself could carry the gold away through rock. It must be somewhere close. Then it suddenly flashed on him: “Pantelei's stolen it!”

  As the thought came, that maid, the miner maid, suddenly appeared in front of him. It was dark, but he could see her plain as by day. She stood there, straight and tall, by the edge of the hole and looked hard at Kostka.

  “It seems you've lost something, Red-Head! And blaming your brother? He'll come and take it in good time, and there'll be naught you can do about it.”

  “Who told you to come here, ye pop-eyed jade?”

  He caught hold of her legs and tried to pull her down into the hole. Her feet were off the ground but she still stood straight up. Then she seemed to get longer and thinner, she stretched out and it was an adder he was holding. It curved over his shoulder and crawled down his back. And Kostka, seized with terror, let go the tail. The serpent struck with its head on the stone and sparks flew out, so bright they were blinding.

  Then the serpent passed through the stone, and along its trail gold shone, in grains and whole nuggets. Gold, and much of it. When Kostka saw that the flung himself against the stone and his head struck it. The next day his mother found him at the bottom of the shaft. His head did not seem badly broken, but for some reason Kostka was dead.

  Pantelei came from Krylatovskoye for the funeral. He was given leave. When he saw the shaft in the garden, he guessed there had been some mischance with the gold. That troubled him greatly, he had hoped that gold would give him freedom. He had heard bad reports of Kostka, but still he had trusted his brother to buy him off. He went to take a look, bent down over the shaft, and a light seemed to shine up at him from below. At the bottom was something like a round window of thick glass, and in that glass wound a trail of gold. And a maid stood below looking at Pantelei through the glass. She had red had red hair and black eyes, eyes that would make you fear to look at them. But the maid was smiling, and she pointed at that trail of gold as though to say: “There is your gold, take it. And have no fear.” It was as if she spoke kindly, yet there was no word to be heard. And then the light vanished.

  At first Pantelei was afraid, he thought it was a spook. But then he took courage and climbed down into the hole. There was no glass at all, only white stone, quartz. Pantelei had had to do with stone like that in the Master's mines. He was used to it, knew what to do. I'll have a try, he thought. Maybe there really is gold here.

  He went and got all needful and started breaking away the stone at the place where he'd seen the golden trail. And there it was, gold, and not just grains, but nuggets and whole pockets. A real rich vein. By eventide Pantelei have got five or six pounds of pure gold. He went secretly to Pimenov, and then to the bailiff.

  “What I've come about is, I want to buy myself free.”

  “Very good,” said the bailiff, “only I've not time now. Come in the morn. We'll talk about it quietly then.”

  The way Kostka had been crying on, the bailiff knew he must have had a good bit of money. So he made up his mind to squeeze Pantelei and get as much out of him as he could. But luckily for Pantelei, a man came running in.

  “A messenger's come. The Master's in Sysert, he'll be here tomorrow. He's sent orders to have all the road to Poldnevnaya put in order.”

  The bailiff was likely afraid he'd lose all, for he said to Pantelei: “Give me five hundred, but I'll put four on the paper.”

  So he pocketed a hundred. Well, Pantelei didn't bargain. Gorge yourself, you dog, he thought, you'll choke some day.

  So Pantelei was free. He dug a bit more in the hole in his garden. But then he stopped seeking gold altogether. A man lives quieter without it, he thought.

  And that was how it was. He bought himself a farm, not so big, but he could get along. There was only one thing more that happened. And that was when he married.

  He'd but one eye, of course. So he chose a plain, modest maid from a poor home. And he had his wedding quietly.

  The next day his young wife took a look at her wedding ring. . . . How'll I wear that? She thought. It's so thick and fine, it must have cost a lot. What if I lose it?

  So she said to her husband: “Why did you waste so much money, Pantelei? How much did my ring cost?”

  “It's no waste when it's the custom,” said Pantelei. “I paid a ruble and a half for the ring.”

  “Nay,” said his wife, “never will I believe that.”

  Pantelei took a look, and saw it wasn't the ring he'd bought. He looked at his own hand and there was quite a different ring on his finger too, and it had two tiny black stones in the middle, like eyes sparkling at him.

  When he saw those stones he thought at once of the maid who had shown him the trail of gold in the stone, but he said naught of that to his wife. Why trouble her for no good purpose?

  She wouldn't wear that ring, all the same, she bought herself a cheap one. And what would a muzhik do with a ring? Pantelei wore his till the bridal days were over, and that was all.

  After Kostka died, folks at the gold-fields asked each other: “Where's that maid, the one that danced so fine?” but she was gone. One would ask another - where did she come from? Some said from Kungurka, others from Mramor. Well, all sorts of things. Miner folk, they're always wandering. They've little time for thinking of who comes from what house. So they forgot her.

  But gold was found on the Ryabinovka for a long time

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