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Chapter-4
Agostino The Martinet

Agostino kept an open house. It was in keeping with the custom prevailed in that region. Even when he went visiting for three or four days at a stretch.
He vaguely knew where he had come from and of a few of his distant relations who still lived here and there. He took trouble to seek them out little by little. Having found those old souls took warmly to his rekindling their kindred spirits he made more frequently such visits.
Besides such visits sharpened his appetite for coming home: ‘looking up his dolls’ as he said. His dolls, twenty of them kept his house he knew. He learnt to tolerate the presence of boys and girls who dropped in as matter of custom and left by sundown. His critical eye as always looked out for trouble. Whenever he came in from his visits he looked out if the children were in best of their behaviour or not.
Once on his return he found children assembled about his dolls. They were fully into their game and it did not upset him as much as what his creatures: Marcos was pushed around and apparently had knocked Diana almost to the edge. Quickly he attended to them and said as if no one in particular, ‘Do not touch!’ That rule holds whether I am out or in!” Controlling his annoyance he laid on the table some titbits he had brought along. He avoided looking at any one in particular. Since he knew he had made the point clear enough he thereafter tried to act as normal.
After that irritated outburst there ensued silence. The boys were cowed and girls pale with nervousness.
The children soon went off after nibbling some roasted nuts and raisins. Polybus the bird-catcher’s son however murmured, after making sure he was safe, ”Augustine could be annoying!” Their fantasies where they played them out didn’t mean a thing. But the dolls were crucial to them. The doll-maker was becoming somewhat crabby to their taste.
After he had freshened up Agostino went leisurely over his dolls. These were his life-blood, the result of endless sweat and dreams. He was assured of his success in the manner children from the neighbourhood took to them. It always made him feel good. But his concern for their safekeeping also alarmingly grew. He always was alert that the creatures were not damaged by mischief.
” The children are for mischief,” the dollmaker asserted,” but not with my dolls!” He grew more watchful when his young admirers trooped in.
One night. In the middle of that night he got up with a start. And he had heard some stirring; and it came from the hall! He peeked and he stood stock-still, his heart thumping with excitement. Those dolls were not in their usual place. He turned around and saw them on the worktable. “My dolls are alive!” he exclaimed despite of himself. Yes, they were as natural as those children who for every afternoon had kept their vigil by them. They skipped and hopped across the chisel marks and looked over the traces of glue with the intensity of a child in real life. Three boys turned to Deborah and one offered a butterfly that had permanently settled on his forefinger. While Glacis held out a bunch of grapes from a little wicker basket he held in his other hand. Another showed surprise at Safiah a girl who showed jealousy at the attention Deborrah got from boys. It was so uncanny that shook up the old man. Agostino gasped.
They obviously overheard and they immediately went to their appointed places.
The doll-maker was elated but as he went back to his bed he was troubled. “The children served them as models! No doubt of that!” He was convinced.
Next morning he got up with a start, “What if the children were to serve them as bad example?” Agostino had poured his entire life and he knew too much was at risk. ‘He was certain the children under his roof had to be perfect in all manner. That much lay within his power. He was sure. “I cannot allow my life’s work to be spoilt.”
In the day’s to come Agostino showed much attention to their presence. The children noted with a sinking heart. His proffered glasses of lemonade or dried fruits didn’t lessen the rigor of his course in good manners. They noted he was more like a school master than as a doll-maker. They chafed under his crabbiness that didn’t take note of their spontaneity. The more he became a stickler for proper decorum he became as odious as a Pecksniff. ”Don’t do this, don’t slouch, sit up!” and thus went on his admonitions. He began noticing words and gestures that had hitherto escaped him and every slip in their manners was named. He didn’t so much intend to shame them but keep what was acceptable behaviour fixed in their minds. It was for dolls’ sake!
No one could understand why it had to be this way. Their fantasies they had for long tied to the dolls that in some way expressed their innocence and their childhood. Now the wet blanket of a doll-maker loomed large and so menacing! and their fantasies were in danger of being smashed to bits and pieces! In the days to come the children took secret council far away from presence of the doll-maker and they concluded that they had to shape up. They could not risk making him an enemy. In order to be able to play with the dolls, – these were their world too, they would do all to please their maker.
But their heart was not in it. So much was obvious to the doll maker in a matter of three months. He had let the children who were so well behaved and so considerate free run of the house as before. Each month he would be gone on visit and he noticed nothing amiss. How relieved he was as he came home as usual!
The dolls were as perfect as the first time.
Six months later he had retired as usual and in the small hours he was awakened by some alarm. Safiah was on a rampage and was astride over Deborah pummelling her left and right. Those two boys whose attention to the fair Deborah had snapped something in her, obviously. Agostino took their spirited fight as if transfixed. Soon the dolls took sides and a general brawl broke out. It was something he had never foreseen. It didn’t take much to lay the cause of their bad behaviour.
Agostino didn’t sleep for he was upset. He looked back at the delight that he found in their creation. ‘It was all for nothing!” He sadly shook his head. How they were spoilt was beyond his ken. Only that he knew those children whom he let in had contributed to their bad conduct. He felt deceived! From that point his anger built on itself by fits and starts. He was in a fury.
When those kids from the nearby lanes dropped in they were astounded to see the doll-maker barring their path. He shook his fists and spluttered with rage, ”Be gone!” They stood there shuffling unable to understand. But his fury and threats made them well understand they had better clear off. They went off.
(to be cont’d)

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Once while waiting for a customer to come Agostino sat on his front veranda and whittled away a piece of wood out of odds and ends piled in a basket. His penknife went on with a sure touch, and the man with whom he had some business to talk over startled him. To that purpose they had agreed the night before the hour and the place. He had completely forgotten about him! The fellow did not frown at his neglect. Instead he stood there rooted and then squealed; and said the face was the spitting image of the stove maker. “Why look at that pendulous nose and his double chin!” Before he could add a word Agostino abruptly changed the subject. He didn’t want to waste his time he explained by way of an apology for his curtness. He was rather put out for his lapse. Nevertheless the customer went that day happy because he had done a thorough job with his broken down chair.
That evening Agostino while going through the day’s events knew he had discovered another side to his many talents. He picked up the figure of the stove maker. It was his spittin’ image. Well he was ugly. Yet something in that soothed him in a way he had never before felt. It was inexplicable! Like some sorcerer he had lifted some discard and given it a new dimension- a second chance!
In the days to come he applied his leisure wholly to carve figures in wood. At first his figures were quite crude; yet he kept at it till he could invest character in the way he set out features and posture to a form. With patience and perseverance he polished his craft till he could take pleasure; even the tedium of creation gave him joy. Art was not in his axe; neither was it in his penknife or awl. But something in the way he applied his hands so closely to a block of wood, and tried to keep to what he had only imagined worked. It made the piece of wood something else.
It made all his toil worthwhile.
Such was his thrill that he invited those who happened to pass by to take a look. They said with one voice, ”How smart the oddjobs man is!”
Agostino made three dolls no bigger than his palm. It took him about one year. He had drawn them from life and gave them familiar features that however were so mixed.
Yet that didn’t fool his young admirers. They could detect who served as a model for any particular figure they happened to examine. One day Cyprian, the son of the drover hazarded to give name to one doll but the sudden arrival of the doll-maker put a stop.
Agostino did not care much for the children who stopped by to watch him at work. Being much of a loner he learnt to work on despite of their curiosity. Slowly more children from the neighborhood came to look at the handiwork. They watched with bated breath at the furious way he blocked out in wood and how his strong hands glided over details as if the metal knew its routine. While he worked on the head his chisel cut away only the non- essentials and lo and behold the nose, ears or the chin they could see come largely unscathed. Thereafter while he applied cuttlefish bone along the surface smoothening the skin it always caused great commotion. ‘Will he succeed or miss? The children would wonder. Had he rubbed too hard and knocked out a nose or an ear that would have rendered all his effort in vain. No, his attention and mastery over his material always succeeded.
In their awe Agostino thought they were sincere and let them free run of the house. He even let them handle the dolls as long as they were gentle. He liked the way their eyes lit up to watch his creations. Soon the children from the neighborhood become a constant fixture in that cottage by the Cloud Peak.
Unknown to him they thought he was a sorcerer. He had carved three dolls at first. They saw his cleverness was inhuman. Cleo Nike who never liked to speak ill defended the doll-maker thus, “Agostino is regular like you and me. But may be too clever for my liking.” Ambrose who was treated as an idiot, said all those dolls were done in memory of those children lost so young and in suspicious circumstances. How they laughed him down! What followed it got somewhat out of hand. Only the timely arrival of the doll-maker put a lid on the rough play.
‘ Agostino is a wizard!’ It was their secret and they shook hands on it. They would never breathe a word of it to their parents.
Whatever they might have thought of Agostino it was at his cottage they always converged. Those three dolls had grown larger in number, and there were a few girls adding to the collection. By the time he had made ten dolls, five of them boys the children could well anchor their fantasy to the five pairs.’ Watching the dolls’ had became a routine and these five pairs had taken a life of their own filling as large as life. It made their fantasy world colourful and always gave them something to talk about.
Agostino indulged their presence only as admirers who did rightful homage to his handiwork. They were intrusion, nevertheless an unavoidable distraction.
After he had finished the twentieth doll he stopped. It had taken three years of constant toil. Since he worked as oddjobs man he took to applying final touches after supper. Till late into the night he could work by the candlelight sitting by the workbench and before the fire. That rounded off each day satisfactorily.
He showed the same care in their dress as he took in giving names and character. He dressed them in clothes, which were currently in fashion. With loving care he stitched dresses in bits and pieces of silk, calico and natural fibres he could lay hands on. Those sequins and mother of pearl in-lay work he had saved came now handy.
He fell in love like a foolish father with all of them. Still he had his favorites. Marcos, an ivory skinned lad with curls of wool was dressed in sailor suit with gilded buttons. Deborah had a dress in long skirt with four flounces and a blouse. She showed a shepherd’s crook in her hand and a basket of wool, which was picturesque. ‘For a shepherdess on her way to market she was dressed, too pretty.” so said the stove maker once. When the news reached the ears of the doll maker he said,” Bah!” He wanted his creatures to look their best. He was looking into an ideal world rather than what their humdrum lives would have warranted. Thus he happily worked out details for each. It made sense to him.
Ah, the dolls took so much of his time and during the day he kept them arrayed on the workbench. With great care he put each away for the night on a shelf he had fixed between two windows.
He knew he was neglecting his career. Making dolls now took his all. But he was old and he assured himself that he had reached a point where he needed not do anything where he could not put his heart and soul.
(to be cont’d)

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