I knew the story of Ostap, the musician, almost by heart. 'It happened in the village of Zamoshye near the town of Vasilkovo' my grandfather would begin. 'Ostap was the blacksmith. His forge stood at the end of the village, under the dark brooding willows overhanging the river. There was nothing Ostap wasn't good at making—he made horseshoes and nails, and axles for the ox-carts.
'One summer evening he was in his forge when a thunderstorm swept over the village, scattering the leaves into the puddles and blowing an old willow to the ground. Then Ostap heard the trampling of hooves as two riders galloped up, and a young woman's voice calling for the blacksmith.
'Ostap came out and stood amazed at what he saw. In front of his door was a prancing black steed and on it a woman of heavenly beauty in a velvet habit, with a crop in her hand and a veil over her face. Her eyes were laughing behind her veil, and her teeth sparkling, and the velvet of her habit was blue and spangled with raindrops. With her was a young cavalry officer—a regiment of Uhlans was at that time quartered in Vasilkovo.
'"Blacksmith, my dear," she said. "Shoe my horse for me, he's lost a shoe. The road is terribly slippery after the storm."
'She dismounted and sat down on a block of wood while Ostap began to shoe the horse. As he worked he kept glancing at the woman, and suddenly her expression became troubled and she raised her veil and met his eyes.
'"I don't seem to have seen you before," said Ostap. "Maybe you're not from our parts?"
'"I'm from Petersburg," she replied. "You're deft with your work."
'"That's nothing," Ostap said softly. "What's a horseshoe? For you I could forge out of this very same steel a jewel fit for an empress."
'"What kind of a jewel?"
'"Whatever you like. Shall I make you a rose with its leaves and thorns?"
' "Good," said the woman, speaking as softly as Ostap. "Thank you, blacksmith. I'll come for it in a week."
'Ostap helped her into the saddle. Her gloved hand rested in his and he could not restrain himself from kissing it with fervour. But hardly had she pulled her hand away when the officer struck Ostap across the face with his whip, shouting "You lout! Remember who you are!"
'The horses reared and galloped off. Ostap had seized his hammer, meaning to throw it at the officer but he had to put it down. He could see nothing for the blood pouring down his face. The blow had damaged one of his eyes.
'But he pulled himself together and worked for six days, and he made the rose he had promised the woman. And everyone who looked at it said that never had there been such craftsmanship—even in the land of Italy.
'On the seventh night a rider pulled up outside and dismounted and tied up the horse. Fearing to show himself, Ostap sat and waited, its hands over his face.
'He heard light footsteps and a light breath, and he felt a pair of gentle arms embracing him, and a single tear fell on his face. ' "I know, my dear, I know," said the woman. "My heart has been aching and aching. Forgive me, Ostap, for bringing this terrible misfortune upon you. I was engaged to him, but I've driven him away. Now I'm going back to Petersburg."
'"Why?" Ostap asked softly.
'"0 my dear one, my heart!" said the woman. "They'll never leave us in peace to be happy together."
'"It must be as you wish," said Ostap. "I'm a simple man, I'm only a blacksmith. For me it's happiness just to think of you."
'The woman took the rose, she kissed Ostap and she slowly rode away. He stood watching her from the threshold. Twice she stopped. Twice she made as if to turn back, but in the end she rode on, while the starlight played over the hills and the shooting stars fell into the steppe, as if the sky itself were weeping.'
At this point in the story Grandfather always paused. I sat holding my breath.
'Did they never see each other again?' I finally asked in a whisper.
'No,' said Grandfather. 'They never did. Ostap began to go blind. He decided to walk to Petersburg while he could still see something. But when he got there he learned that the woman had died. Perhaps she couldn't bear to live away from him. Ostap found her grave in the graveyard. He looked at it and his heart stood still, for upon the white marble tombstone he saw the steel rose. The woman had asked that it should lie there forever. Ostap took to playing the lyre, and he must have died somewhere on the road under a fence, or under a cart in a market place. May he rest in peace!'