A Fragile Twig: Pavel Bazhov Story from the Urals

A Fragile Twig: Pavel Bazhov Story from the Urals

Danilo and Katya – her that got her man out of the Mistress’ mountain – had a big family of children. Eight of the, and all lads. Their mother used to complain, times – why couldn’t there be just one girl among them all to please your eye? But their father would just laugh. “Looks like we don’t know how to make ’em.”

The boys grew up strong and sturdy. There was only one suffered a mishap. He fell down when he was little, maybe from the steps or maybe somewhere else, and hurt himself. A hump started to grow. They took him to wise women, but it didn’t help. He just had to stay a hunchback.

A Fragile Twig: Pavel Bazhov

Now, a child like that is apt to be cross and spiteful, I’ve often marked it, but this one was all right, bright as could be, full of ideas. He was the third eldest, but all the others took heed of him, they’d ask him: “What d’ye think, Mitya? What’s that for, Mitya?”

And his father and mother were the same. They’d call him with “Take a look at this Mitya – does it look right?” or “Mitya – did ye happen to see where I put my distaff?”

Danilo had played the horn real fine when he was young, and Mitya tool after him. He made himself a pipe and played it so it seemed to have music and words too.

Danilo earned money with his craft, and Katya wasn’t idle either. So they lived comfortable, and never had to ask of others. Katya saw to it the children were well clothed, with warm coats and felt boots and all the rest of it. In the summer, of course, they ran about barefoot, on their own soles, not bought ones. But Mitya had topboots because he was frail and they were tender of him. The older boys weren’t envious, and as for the younger ones, they’d come to their mother with “Mum, it’s time to give Mitya new boots. He can’t get those on, but they’ll be just right for mr.”

Cunning, children are! There they were, eyeing Mitya’s topboots, waiting for their turn at them.

So they all lived in good harmony, and the neighbours used to talk of them with wonder.

“See what lads Katerina’s got! Never a fight, never a quarrel!”

But it was all Mitya. He was like a light burning in the forest, some it cheers, some it warms and some it sets to thinking.

A Fragile Twig: Pavel Bazhov Story from the Urals

Danilo wouldn’t let the boys start early on his craft. “Let them get their growth first,” he said, “time enough for them to be swallowing malachite dust.”

Katya was of the same mind – early yet to start them working. She even got the idea of having them learn to read and write and a bit of figures too. There were no schools then of course, so the elder brothers started going to a woman who’d got skill in that sort of learning. And Mitya went with them. The elder lads were bright enough, the woman praised them, but Mitya – was ahead of them all. They’d difficult ways of teaching in those days, but he took everything in at once. The teacher hardly had time to show him and he’d got it. His brothers were still at their letters and simple words, and he was reading away – you couldn’t keep up with him. The teacher kept saying: “Never have I seen such a lad!”

Well, his parents were proud of him when they heard that, and the next boots they had made for him were real smart ones. And it was those boots that started all the trouble.

That year the Master was living here. Played ducks and drakes with all his money in St. Petersburg, and came to see if he couldn’t squeeze out a bit more.

There’d be plenty to be found in a place like that, if you went the right way about it. The bailiff and all those clerks, it struck their fingers pretty thick. But that was where he never even looked.

One day when he came driving down the street he saw three children playing in front of a cottage, and everyone of them wearing boots.Well, the Master beckoned to them.

Now, Mitya’d never seen the Master before, but he guessed who it was. The horses were sleek, the coachman had a livery, the carriage was shining and the man in it was all puffed up, so fat he could hardly move, and he held a stick in front of him with a gold knob on it.

Mitya felt a bit shy, but he took the smaller ones’ hands and they went to the carriage. And the Master wheezed: “whose brats are you?”

Mitya was the eldest, so he answered, calm as you please: “We’re Danilo the stonecarver’s lads. I’m Mtya and they’re my brothers.”

Well, the Master, he nigh choked when he heard it, he got all black in the face and puffed and wheezed; “Ugh! Ugh! Look at that! Look at that! Ugh! Ugh!

Then he got his breath a bit and started roaring like a bear.

“What’s that?” He pointed with his stick at the boy’s feet. The little ‘Uns got real scared then and ran in the gate. But Mitya stood there puzzling his head – what was it the Master wanted to know?” But he, the Master, that is, he kept on in a frenzy. “What’s that? What’s that – eh?”

Mitya was all confused with it, so he said; “The ground.”

Well, the Master looked like he was having a fit, he just gasped: “Hr-r-r! Hr-r-r! What’s it come to! What’s it come to! Hr-r-r! Hr-r-r!”

Then Danilo himself came running out, but the Master didn’t stop to talk to him, he poked the coachman in the neck with the knob of his stick – drive on!

That Master was sort of queer in the head. He’d been a bit off, like, when he was young, and when he got old it was real bad. He’d get in a rage with a man, and then afterwards he didn’t know himself what he’d been wanting. So Danilo and Katerina thought maybe it would all pass off, he’d forget about the children by the time he got home. But not this time – the topboots on those children was something he didn’t forget. He started right away rating the bailiff.

“Where are your eyes? What are ye here for? Your master can’t afford shoes and there’s serf’s brats running about in topboots! Call yourself a bailiff?”

The man tried to excuse himself.

“It was your Honour’s kindness let Danilo go on quit-rent, ye named the figure yourself, and he always pays, so I thought…”

“Not your place to think! It’s your job to watch!” the Master howled.

“Look what’s going on there! Where else ‘ud ye find that? Put him on fourfold quit-rent!”

Then he sent for Danilo and told himself about the new quit-rent. Danilo saw it was out of all sense or reason.

“I can’t withstand the master’s will,” he said, “but neither can I pay a quit-rent like that. I will work as others do, on task-work.”

That didn’t suit the Master at all. He was short of money as it was he’d little desire just then for carved stone. He was more likely to sell what he’d got together earlier on. But to put a stone carver to other work – no sense in that either. So he started bargaining. Danilo tried all he could, this way and that, but all the same the Master gave him a quit-rent double what it had been, and if he didn’t like it he could get and work in the mine. That was what the Master threatened.

Of course it was a blow for Danilo and Katya. It came hard on them all, but worse for the children, they had to start working before they’d their full growth. So they never got learning after all. Mitya-he felt it was his fault more than anybody’s – he kept asking for work. He wanted to help his parents, but they got to thinking again, the way they had before. He’s frail as it is, set him working on malachite and he’ll just waste away. They thought and thought, and at last they made up their mind to have Mitya apprenticed to the gem cutting. He’d a keen, true eye and quick fingers, and the work didn’t need much strength-just right for him.

Among all their relatives they’d got a gem cutter, of course, so they sent the lad to him. He was glad enough, you can be sure, for he knew Mitya had a head on him and was a good, hard worker.

That gem cutter wasn’t one of the best or one of the worst, he’d take second or sometimes third price for his work. Still, Mitya learned all he could teach. And then the man told Danilo: “Ye ought to send the lad to town. Let him learn the fine craft. He’s got a real good hand.’

So that was what they did. Danilo knew plenty of folks in town doing that sort of work, he found the man he wanted and settled for him to teach Mitya.this was an old master craftsman who made berries. It was the fashion then, you see, to have berries made of all kinds of stones. Raspberries, grapes and currants, and all the rest. Each berry had its own stone. And the same for the stalks and leaves-some of ophite, some of malachite or coloured quartz and other kinds of stone.

Mitya learned the rules, all right and proper, but then he started thinking things up for himself. His master scolded at first, but then he praised the boy. “Aye, it does look more lifelike that way.” And a bit later he said right out: “I can see, lad, ye’ve got a real gift for this sort o’ work. Even an old man like me can learn from ye. You’re a real master craftsman, and with ideas in your head, too”

He thought a bit, then he added: Only see you don’t let them run away with ye-those ideas o’yours! Or they may get ye into trouble. That’s happened to folks too.”

Mitya-well, he was young, so of course he didn’t listen to any of that. He just laughed.

“So long as the ideas are good ‘uns. How’d those get me into trouble?”

That was the way Mitya became a master craftsman, and quite young still, with the first down on his lip. He’d plenty of orders, all the work he could do. The merchants who sold these kinds of wares soon saw they could make good money on the lad’s work, and they kept ordering this and that, he’d hardly time to turn around.

Then Mitya thought to himself: I’ll go back home. If folks want my work, they’ll come there for it, It’s a short road and light load – to bring me the stone and take away my work.

So that’s what he did. And glad his parents were, of course – Mitya had come back. And he liked to see them merry, too, but he wasn’t so merry himself. Seemed like the whole house was just malachite workshop. His father and two elder brothers were always at the bench with malachite all around them, and the younger ones were there too, filing or grinding. His mother had the baby girl she’d wanted so badly, but there was no joy in the family. Danilo was looking old, the elder boys coughed and little ones were sickly. All day they toiled, just to pay the Master’s quit-rent.

Mitya thought to himself: it’s all because of those topboots. He wanted to get his own work going quickly. It was small, finicking work, but all the same he had a number of wheels and instruments, and a workplace had to be found. He chose a spot by the window and started. And all the time he kept thinking: what if he could make berries out of the stone found hereabout? Then he could get the younger lads to help him. He thought and thought, but he couldn’t see a way. It’s mostly chrysolite and malachite round our way, you know. Chrysolite isn’t so cheap, and it wouldn’t do either, while malachite would only do for leaves, and not always for them, even, without a lot of setting or cementing.

One day he was sitting at work. It was summer and the window was open. There was nobody else at home, his mother had gone out somewhere, the little ones too, and his father and the older lads were at the wheels in the workshop. Not a sound from them. You don’t feel much like talking or singing when you’re grinding malachite.

Mitya sat there carving his berries out of the merchant’s stone, thinking and thinking of the same thing all the time- where could he find some cheap kind of stone to make things like that?

Suddenly a hand came through the window, a woman’s or a girl’s he couldn’t tell, with a bracelet on the wrist and a ring on the finger, and put a big slab of serpentine on the bench, with a bit of slag, like they used for roads, lying on it.

Mitya made a jump for the window-no one there, and the street was empty, not a soul passing.

What could it be? Was someone having a joke with him, or was it a vision? He took another look at the serpentine and the slag lying on it and nearly jumped for joy. You could get that sort of stuff by the cartload, and you could make things of it too, if you chose it with care and worked with skill. But what?

He started thinking what sort of berry it suited best, and all the time he was staring at the place where the hand had appeared. And suddenly it came in again and put a burdock leaf on the bench, and on the leaf were three twigs with berries on them; one was bird-cherry, the second ordinary cherry and the last was ripe gooseberries, so ripe they seemed near bursting.

Well, Mitya didn’t wait, he ran right outside into the street to see who was playing tricks. He looked and looked all round, but not a soul was in sight, it was like a dead place. It was the real heat of the day, who’d be outside at that time?

He stood there a bit, then he went to the window, picked up the leaf and the twigs from the bench and looked at them every way. They were real berries, live ones, but the wonder was, where the cherries had come from. Easy enough to get bird-cherry, of course, and there were plenty of gooseberries growing in the Master’s garden, up at the Big House. But where could the cherries have come from when they don’t grow in our parts and they seemed like they’d just been picked from the tree?

He looked and looked at those cherries, but all the same it was the gooseberries he liked the best, and they were the best for the material he’d use, too. And he’d barely had the thought, when he felt a hand stroke his shoulder, like someone saying: “Good lad! You understand your work!”

Of course, even a blind man would have known now whose hand that was. Mitya had grown up in Polevaya and he’d heard plenty about the Mistress of the Mountain. And he thought- if only she’d let me see her. But she didn’t. Maybe she pitied the hunchback lad, and didn’t want to craze him with her beauty- anyway, she didn’t show herself.

Mitya set to work at once with the slag and serpentine. He hunted and hunted for a bit he could use. Well, he found it and then set wits and hands to work. He sweated over that job. First he cut halves of gooseberries, then he made a hole in the middle and grooves here and knot there, then he cemented the halves together and ground and polished it all smooth and fine. Looked real enough to pop in your mouth. He cut delicate leaves out of serpentine and he even managed to make fine thorns on the stem. It was real first – class work. Each berry – you could almost see the seed inside, and the leaves looked alive, there were even little flaws, a caterpillar hole on one or a speck of rust on another, just like real ones.

Danilo and the other sons worked on a different kind of stone, but they could understand that craft. The mother had once worked with stone too. And all of them, they didn’t know how to admire Mitya’s berries enough. And the thing that amazed them was that he’d done it all out of common serpentine and road side slag. Mitya himself was pleased with it. It was real fine work. Delicate. For them to understand, of course.

Mitya made a lot more things out of slag and serpentine after that. It was a big help to the family. The merchants snatched at work, paid for it the same as they did for things made of real stone, and buyers always took Mitya’s things first. it was something new, you see. So Mitya worked away at his berries. He made bird-cherries too, and garden cherries, and ripe gooseberries, but that first bit he never sold, he kept it by him. There was one maid he thought to give it to, but he couldn’t bring himself to it.

And the maids, be sure, didn’t turn their backs on Mitya’s window. He was a hunchback, but all the same he’d a lively tongue and a quick wit, and the sort of trade to make a maid look twice. And he wasn’t grudging, he’d give them beads in handfuls. So they would be around all the time, but that one, she found more errands past his window than any other, and as she went she’d flash her teeth and toss her plaits. Mitya wanted to give her the twig, but he felt awkward about it.

They’ll laugh at her, a gift like that, and she’ll likely take offence.”

Now, that Master who’d caused all the upset in Danilo’s family was still puffing and gasping on the earth. He’d betrothed his daughter to some prince or merchant that year and had to get her a dowry. Well. The Polevaya bailiff thought he’d curry favour; he’d seen Mitya’s twig with the gooseberries and he understood a bit about such things. So he sent his men for it. “If he won’t give it ye, then take it.”

What did they care about? Naught out of the way, that. They took the twig from Mitya, brought it to the bailiff, and had it put in a velvet box. Next time the Master came to Polevaya, the bailiff lost no time.

“Be so gracious, accept this gift for the bride. “A fine piece!”

The Master looked at it and first he praised it every way, then he asked: “what stone’s it made of, and how much does the stone cost?”

“That’s what’s wonderful,” said the bailiff, “it’s made of common stuff, serpentine and slag.”

Then the Master started gobbling. “What? How? Slag? For my daughter?”

The bailiff saw it looked bad for him, so he blamed Mitya.

It was that rascal pushed it at me, gave me no peace: i’d never ha’ dared else.”

They dragged Mitya in, of course, and the Master knew him at once. It’s that one! The one had topboots-!

Then he started belabouring Mitya with his stick. “How dare ye?” Mitya didn’t know at first what it was all about, then he guessed the whole thing and told the master: “Your bailiff took it from me by force, let him answer.”

But it was no good talking, the Master didn’t even listen to him. He just snarled: “I’ll show ye!”

Then he snatched up the twig from the table, flung it down on the floor and started stamping on it. There was only dust left, of course.

That rally did sting Mitya, he fell into a fury. Well, what do you think, who’d be going to stand smiling when the dearest work of his hand and brain is crushed underfoot?

So Mitya, he snatched away the Master’s stick by the thin end and smashed the knob down on his head, and the Master fell down sitting on the floor and his eyes rolled up.

And here was the strange thing-the bailiff was there and serving men, as many as you want, and they all stood like stuck images, while Mitya went out of the room and disappeared. And after, nobody could find him. But people saw his work, and those that understood such things always knew it.

There was another token too. That maid who used to smile in front of Mitya’s window, she disappeared too, and didn’t come back.

They searched for a long time for the maid. They may have thought it would be easier to find her, a woman won’t usually go far from her own parts. They kept harrying her parents: tell us where she is!” But naught came of it. They plagued Danilo and his other sons, too, for a bit, but then they quickly remembered the big quit-rent, so they left them alone. And as for the Master, he puffed and wheezed a bit more till he choked with his own fat.

~ Translated from the Russian by ‘Eve Manning‘ & illustrated by ‘Viktor Kirillov

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