The Finest Pipe Maker in Russia
A Londoner who cherishes every vestige of the cockney, WOLF MANKOWITZ graduated from Cambridge University and within six years established himself as one of the leading dealers in Wedgwoad. Now in his late twenties, he writes as he pleases, dividing his time between anthovitative studies of the Portland vase, plays for the London theater, and fiction. His two latest novels, Make Me an Offer and A Kid for Two Farthings, are being filmed. In the months ahead we shall publish a series of his short stories, of which this is the first.
by WOLF MANKOWITZ
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER was certainly the finest pipe maker in Russia — or at least in that part where he lived. Not only did everyone worth noticing buy a pipe from my greatgrandfather, but landowners and the owner of the large timber business in the next village came to him for their best pipes even if they sometimes smoked others made by inferior craftsmen. And so my great-grandfather was a very famous man indeed, for, although you can live your whole life and only hear of Napoleon when someone digs up a French coin or an old rusted saber, you cannot smoke a good pipe without remembering who made it, and you wish him many more years, so that he can go on making you pipes, although, of course, my greatgrandfather’s pipes were not such bad workmanship that you needed perhaps more than two in a lifetime. But you would be pleased for him to live a long time, anyway. Once, however, my greatgrandfather made a bad pipe — and even then he made it bad for a good reason. He was the finest pipe maker in Russia and would never have made a bad pipe without having a very good reason.
It happens that this pipe was bad because of what took place on a Sabbath morning. Not that my great-grandfather made the pipe on a Sabbath. I would not like anyone to think that of him. Any pipe made on a Sabbath morning— it goes without saying — is not likely to draw well after the Sabbath has gone out. And my great-grandfather was not the man to make pipes at any time except when a respectable man should make pipes. No, my great-grandfather was not in his workshop on this particular Sabbath morning. He was in the synagogue with the other men of the village. Where else would he be? But it had to be on this particular morning that somebody should want to make himself a nuisance by coming to my great-grandfather for a pipe. My young grandfather was not at the synagogue. If he had been thirteen yet and confirmed, he would have been there. As it was, he was sitting in my great-grandfather’s workshop playing with a chisel and a piece of wood. Suddenly my great-grandmother rushed into the workshop, calling out: “So where are you, Yankele? Why don’t you answer? Put down your father’s tools. What do you mean on a Sabbath morning playing with tools? Run quickly to the synagogue and tell your father he should come home straight away.”
My grandfather was young, but he was not so young that he did not know my great-grandfather to have a big, heavy hand all hard with working wood. So he did not rush out like a mad person straight away to do as my great-grandmother had asked. Instead, he thought for a moment, and then he said: “Supposing I go and tell my father he should come home. What will he say? He won’t say anything. He will give me a clout on the head. On the Sabbath he doesn’t want to know about the house. Only if it’s burning down should you try to fetch him from the synagogue.”Which was true, because my great-grandfather was a pious man. He used to say: “ If God has given us six days, can’t we spare him one?” And who could answer him? There was no answer. Everyone stood dumb.
But my great-grandmother said: “Yankele, if you don’t hurry to the synagogue and bring home your father I will give you a clout on the head.”
This made my young grandfather think: If I stay here, I get a clout on the head. If I go to the synagogue, I get a clout on the head. At least let me get away from the nearest one first. But he looked obedient and said to my great-grandmother: “All right, but what shall I tell my father so that be won’t give me a clout on the head? Why should he come home right away? The house isn’t burning.”
My great-grandmother could see that what my grandfather said was reasonable, so she answered quickly: “Outside is waiting a lord with a big carriage with horses and a coachman, and he wants Father to make him an extra-special pipe.”
Not many lords came to my great-grandfather’s workshop. “If they are satisfied with inferior workmanship, it is their own business,”my great-grandfather used to say. So that when a lord came my great-grandmother was bound to be very excited. My young grandfather was also excited, and rushed out to see the carriage and the horses and, of course, the lord himself.
THE lord was in the kitchen sitting by the stove. He was a big man, with a lot of furs on him, and he was sucking a thick cheroot. My young grandfather could see he needed a pipe badly and told him: “I am going to fetch my father, who is the finest pipe maker in Russia, to make you a pipe.”
And the big man said: “Good. Here is a sixpence for you. Run quickly.” And to my great-grandmother he said: “Have you any vodka?”
My grandfather ran out of the house without even putting his hat on. It was snow everywhere, you understand— real heavy thick snow covering everything; not like in this country, where an inch is a lot, but real heavy thick snow. When it melted, sometimes you could find a cow which had been lost all the winter, or sometimes even a drunken man last heard of months ago. But my young grandfather was very strong although he was not yet confirmed, and he was thinking of the boiled butter beans he could buy at school with the sixpence, so he ran over the snow like a wolf.
Still, the synagogue was two miles away, and before my grandfather got there he stopped running, and when he stopped running he began to think of how (without letting himself in for a clout on the head) he could ask my great-grandfather to leave the synagogue. When he got there he still had not thought of a way, so he went up to my great-grandfather, who was praying with a big shawl round him, and he touched his hand and waited. Then my great-grandfather, who was a very big man indeed, looked down and smiled through his beard and nodded his head and went on praying. He thought my young grandfather had come to the synagogue to be with the men praying, and said to himself: “Perhaps he will be a student and a teacher after all. Perhaps he will turn out to be a credit, although he is developing late.”
But my young grandfather was feeling very nervous with his hand in his pocket fingering the sixpence which the lord had given him, because he suddenly remembered that he would get a clout on the head even if it was only because he had taken money on the Sabbath. After a while he looked up at my great-grandfather again and said quietly: “My mother wants you to come home.”
My great-grandfather was greatly surprised, and replied: “What?”
My young grandfather looked away and said even more quietly: “She wants you to come home because someone wishes to see you.”
My great-grandfather looked even more surprised and was also beginning to look angry. He blew through his beard: “What? Yankele, on a Sabbath morning you come to the synagogue to bring me home to the house? What does it mean? I will give you a clout on the head.”
My young grandfather knew to expect this, so he had already moved a few yards away, and he answered: “A lord is waiting by the house. He wants you to make him a pipe. He is a lord with a carriage and horses and even a coachman. And he is wearing a big fur coat.”
But my great-grandfather still looked angry and surprised. It had never happened before, this being sent messages at the synagogue in the middle of the Sabbath morning to come home and make a pipe. Well, what could you expect from a woman and a boy not yet confirmed? But this was too much already. He chewed his beard and said: “A lord is waiting? Well, and why shouldn’t he wait? Tell this lord he must wait for my Lord. And leave me alone on a Sabbath morning or I’ll give you such a clout on the head you will never forget it.”
My grandfather was already out of the synagogue. He ran for a time, but because it was two miles back to the house he began to walk and think of how he could tell the lord what my great-grandfather’s message was without getting maybe the hardest clout of all.
He saw the lord walking up and down outside the house, and he was breathing out big clouds of steam like the horses, which were also breathing out big clouds, but the lord’s clouds were even bigger than the horses’. The lord was walking up and down with his hands in fur gloves behind his back, so my grandfather went first to the closet which was at the bottom of the piece of ground on which my greatgrandfather kept my great-grandmother’s cow, Masha, and his own cherry trees. He hid his sixpence under the seat, and then called out to the lord what the message was and quickly ran back to the closet. My grandfather heard the lord shout at my great-grandmother: “Well, then, must I wait a month for this pipe maker? Is he a lord, or am I? Must I wait until the thaw? Well, must I wait all day?” And the lord got into his carriage, and his horses pulled him away to the inn at the next village.
When my great-grandfather arrived back from the synagogue he greeted my great-grandmother, and the next thing he said was: “Now, Yetta, is dinner ready yet?” And then he asked: “Where is that Yankele? And what did he want? And don’t you know any better than to send him for me on a Sabbath morning? What do you mean?" When my great-grandmother explained to him he said: “Aha! So the lord is getting tired of his bad pipes. When he tries everybody else’s pipes and finds out how bad they are, he comes to me. Aha!”
In the afternoon, when my grandfather had come out of the closet, he was taken with my great-grandfather to the next village, to the inn. The inn smelled very strong. “Faugh, faugh,” said my great-grandfather.
All the peasants who spotted my great-grandfather greeted him with respect, because they knew he was the finest pipe maker in Russia and a credit to the neighborhood, and besides that, he was a very big man, who had beaten a drunken peasant once who shouted after him in the street.
The lord was drinking in the inn, and when he saw my great-grandfather he shouted: “Well, are you the pipe maker? Why do you keep me waiting? Are you a bigger lord that you can keep me waiting?”
My great-grandfather answered him: “Sir, if when you are in the army your general calls for you, you go?”
The lord drank a glassful of vodka and replied: “ Yes, of course you go. In the army when a general calls you, you go.”
My great-grandfather continued: “And how long do you stay with your general?”
The lord looked at my great-grandfather with an unpleasant look: “So you have not done any military service? What do you mean, how long? When a general calls you, you don’t ask how long. You stay there until he tells you to go away.”
All the peasants were standing around my greatgrandfather looking at him as if they were dumb, and my young grandfather knew that they thought he was a clever man because he was getting the lord into such a deep argument. My grandfather had heard the argument before and this time he did not think it so clever. Why argue with a lord? With a peasant, yes; with my great-grandmother, yes; with the rabbi even, yes; but with a lord — it was like arguing with a policeman. But my great-grandfather was completing the argument: “I was called by my general,” he said, pulling his side whiskers, “and I had to stay until he told me to go.”
All the peasants looked at one another, and the lord drank another glass of vodka, and my grandfather thought: It is a very fine thing to make arguments, but with a lord I don’t think it is so clever.
Then the lord drank still another glass of vodka; whereupon he shouted: “All right, then, all right. Well, then, I want a pipe, a specially good pipe for a present for a prince. You hear, a present for a prince. It must be a good pipe, the best.”
My great-grandfather looked down his nose, and he made some more argument: “My pipes are all the best. Would you be coming to me for a pipe if it wasn’t the best?”
And my grandfather thought: Arguments, always arguments he’s making.
The lord went on: “Very well. This one must be better. And, most important of all, it must have a carved eagle on the bowl. It is no good without a carved eagle. It is for a prince, and he must have an eagle; otherwise it is no good.”
My grandfather expected more arguments, but, instead, my great-grandfather said very quietly: “Very well. With a carved eagle it will be good; otherwise it is no good. Right.”
“ Yes,” said the lord. “It must have an eagle, and I want it tomorrow.”
Now my grandfather really expected arguments. Sabbath was not yet out, and the lord wanted his pipe tomorrow! When could it be made? To make a good pipe takes a long time. My great-grandfather liked to make a pipe in his own time. You said to him one day: “Moishe, you know I would like a pipe.” And he would say: “Yes, a good pipe is a very good thing.” And two or three months later when he met you in the street he would say: “Here you are. Here is a pipe you will like.”
But for this lord a pipe had to be made with an eagle; otherwise it was no good. “All right,” said my great-grandfather. And he sat up all night to make a pipe with an eagle carved on the bowl.
When in the morning my grandfather went into the workshop, he saw the pipe lying on the bench. It had a fine eagle carved on it, with big wings curling down to the stem, and the wings were made up of Hebrew letters carefully carved to look like a row of feathers.
The lord arrived early with his coach and horses, and he came in and saw the pipe and paid my greatgrandfather what he asked — twelve rubles; and he liked the finely carved eagle very much. He gave my grandfather another sixpence, and now my grandfather had two sixpences in his pocket.
Afterwards my great-grandfather said to my grandfather: “This lord must have an eagle carved, but the pipe is not so important. He knows what one of his generals can do, but ray general is not so important. All right, then, I have given him a pipe 1 should wish my worst friend. Two, three years a pipe like this could last" — my great-grandfather knew when he made a bad pipe because he was certainly the finest pipe maker in Russia — “and I have carved on it the Prayer for the Dead. How long can a prince like that live, anyway?”
But my grandfather thought: For two sixpences I can have boiled butter beans every day for a year.