The next day when Nilovna came up to the gates of the factory with her load, the guides stopped her roughly, and ordering her to put the pails down on the ground, made a careful examination.
"My eatables will get cold," she observed calmly, as they felt around her dress.
"Shut up!" said a guard sullenly.
Another one, tapping her lightly on the shoulder, said with assurance:
"Those books are thrown across the fence, I say!"
Old man Sizov came up to her and looking around said in an undertone:
"Did you hear, mother?"
"About the pamphlets. They've appeared again. They've just scattered them all over like salt over bread. Much good those arrests and searches have done! My nephew Mazin has been hauled away to prison, your son's been taken. Now it's plain it isn't he!" And stroking his beard Sizov concluded, "It's not people, but thoughts, and thoughts are not fleas; you can't catch them!"
He gathered his beard in his hand, looked at her, and said as he walked away:
"Why don't you come to see me some time? I guess you are lonely all by yourself."[Pg 126]
She thanked him, and calling her wares, she sharply observed the unusual animation in the factory. The workmen were all elated, they formed little circles, then parted, and ran from one group to another. Animated voices and happy, satisfied faces all around! The soot-filled atmosphere was astir and palpitating with something bold and daring. Now here, now there, approving ejaculations were heard, mockery, and sometimes threats.
"Aha! It seems truth doesn't agree with them," she heard one say.
The younger men were in especially good spirits, while the elder workmen had cautious smiles on their faces. The authorities walked about with a troubled expression, and the police ran from place to place. When the workingmen saw them, they dispersed, and walked away slowly, or if they remained standing, they stopped their conversation, looking silently at the agitated, angry faces.
The workingmen seemed for some reason to be all washed and clean. The figure of Gusev loomed high, and his brother stalked about like a drake, and roared with laughter. The joiner's foreman, Vavilov, and the record clerk, Isay, walked slowly past the mother. The little, wizened clerk, throwing up his head and turning his neck to the left, looked at the frowning face of the foreman, and said quickly, shaking his reddish beard:
"They laugh, Ivan Ivanovich. It's fun to them. They are pleased, although it's no less a matter than the destruction of the government, as the manager said. What must be done here, Ivan Ivanovich, is not merely to weed but to plow!"
Vavilov walked with his hands folded behind his back, and his fingers tightly clasped.
"You print there what you please, you blackguards!"[Pg 127] he cried aloud. "But don't you dare say a word about me!"
Vasily Gusev came up to Nilovna and declared:
"I am going to eat with you again. Is it good to-day?" And lowering his head and screwing up his eyes, he added in an undertone: "You see? It hit exactly! Good! Oh, mother, very good!"
She nodded her head affably to him, flattered that Gusev, the sauciest fellow in the village, addressed her with a respectful plural "you," as he talked to her in secret. The general stir and animation in the factory also pleased her, and she thought to herself: "What would they do without me?"
Three common laborers stopped at a short distance from her, and one of them said with disappointment in his voice: "I couldn't find any anywhere!"
Another remarked: "I'd like to hear it, though. I can't read myself, but I understand it hits them just in the right place."
The third man looked around him, and said: "Let's go into the boiler room. I'll read it for you there!"
"It works!" Gusev whispered, a wink lurking in his eye.
Nilovna came home in gay spirits. She had now seen for herself how people are moved by books.
"The people down there are sorry they can't read," she said to Andrey, "and here am I who could when I was young, but have forgotten."
"Learn over again, then," suggested the Little Russian.
"At my age? What do you want to make fun of me for?"
Andrey, however, took a book from the shelf and pointing with the tip of a knife at a letter on the cover, asked: "What's this?"[Pg 128]
"R," she answered, laughing.
She felt awkward, hurt, and offended. It seemed to her that Andrey's eyes were laughing at her, and she avoided their look. But his voice sounded soft and calm in her ears. She looked askance at his face, once, and a second time. It was earnest and serious.
"Do you really wish to teach me to read?" she asked with an involuntary smile.
"Why not?" he responded. "Try! If you once knew how to read, it will come back to you easily. 'If no miracle it's no ill, and if a miracle better still!'"
"But they say that one does not become a saint by looking at a sacred image!"
"Eh," said the Little Russian, nodding his head. "There are proverbs galore! For example: 'The less you know, the better you sleep'—isn't that it? Proverbs are the material the stomach thinks with; it makes bridles for the soul, to be able to control it better. What the stomach needs is a rest, and the soul needs freedom. What letter is this?"
"Yes, see how it sprawls. And this?"
Straining her eyes and moving her eyebrows heavily, she recalled with an effort the forgotten letters, and unconsciously yielding to the force of her exertions, she was carried away by them, and forgot herself. But soon her eyes grew tired. At first they became moist with tears of fatigue; and then tears of sorrow rapidly dropped down on the page.
"I'm learning to read," she said, sobbing. "It's time for me to die, and I'm just learning to read!"
"You mustn't cry," said the Little Russian gently.[Pg 129] "It wasn't your fault you lived the way you did; and yet you understand that you lived badly. There are thousands of people who could live better than you, but who live like cattle and then boast of how well they live. But what is good in their lives? To-day, their day's work over, they eat, and to-morrow, their day's work over, they eat, and so on through all their years—work and eat, work and eat! Along with this they bring forth children, and at first amuse themselves with them, but when they, too, begin to eat much, they grow surly and scold: 'Come on, you gluttons! Hurry along! Grow up quick! It's time you get to work!' and they would like to make beasts of burden of their children. But the children begin to work for their own stomachs, and drag their lives along as a thief drags a worthless stolen mop. Their souls are never stirred with joy, never quickened with a thought that melts the heart. Some live like mendicants—always begging; some like thieves—always snatching out of the hands of others. They've made thieves' laws, placed men with sticks over the people, and said to them: 'Guard our laws; they are very convenient laws; they permit us to suck the blood out of the people!' They try to squeeze the people from the outside, but the people resist, and so they drive the rules inside so as to crush the reason, too."
Leaning his elbows on the table and looking into the mother's face with pensive eyes, he continued in an even, flowing voice:
"Only those are men who strike the chains from off man's body and from off his reason. And now you, too, are going into this work according to the best of your ability."
"I? Now, now! How can I?"
"Why not? It's just like rain. Every drop goes[Pg 130] to nourish the seed! And when you are able to read, then—" He stopped and began to laugh; then rose and paced up and down the room.
"Yes, you must learn to read! And when Pavel gets back, won't you surprise him, eh?"
"Oh, Andriusha! For a young man everything is simple and easy! But when you have lived to my age, you have lots of trouble, little strength, and no mind at all left."
In the evening the Little Russian went out. The mother lit a lamp and sat down at a table to knit stockings. But soon she rose again, walked irresolutely into the kitchen, bolted the outer door, and straining her eyebrows walked back into the living room. She pulled down the window curtains, and taking a book from the shelf, sat down at the table again, looked around, bent down over the book, and began to move her lips. When she heard a noise on the street, she started, clapped the book shut with the palm of her hand, and listened intently. And again, now closing, now opening her eyes, she whispered:
With even precision and stern regularity the dull tick of the pendulum marked the dying seconds.
A knock at the door was heard; the mother jumped quickly to her feet, thrust the book on the shelf, and walking up to the door asked anxiously: