Rybin came in, greeted her, and stroking his beard in a dignified manner and peeping into the room with his dark eyes, remarked:
"You used to let people into your house before, without inquiring who they were. Are you alone?"
"You are? I thought the Little Russian was here. I saw him to-day. The prison doesn't spoil a man. Stupidity, that's what spoils most of all."
He walked into the room, sat down and said to the mother:
"Let's have a talk together. I have something to tell you. I have a theory!" There was a significant and mysterious expression in his face as he said this. It filled the mother with a sense of foreboding. She sat down opposite him and waited in mute anxiety for him to speak.
"Everything costs money!" he began in his gruff, heavy voice. "It takes money to be born; it takes money to die. Books and leaflets cost money, too. Now, then, do you know where all this money for the books comes from?"
"No, I don't know," replied the mother in a low voice, anticipating danger.
"Nor do I! Another question I've got to ask is:[Pg 132] Who writes those books? The educated folks. The masters!" Rybin spoke curtly and decisively, his voice grew gruffer and gruffer, and his bearded face reddened as with the strain of exertion. "Now, then, the masters write the books and distribute them. But the writings in the books are against these very masters. Now, tell me, why do they spend their money and their time to stir up the people against themselves? Eh?"
Nilovna blinked, then opened her eyes wide and exclaimed in fright:
"What do you think? Tell me."
"Aha!" exclaimed Rybin, turning in his chair like a bear. "There you are! When I reached that thought I was seized with a cold shiver, too."
"Now what is it? Tell me! Did you find out anything?"
"Deception! Fraud! I feel it. It's deception. I know nothing, but I feel sure there's deception in it. Yes! The masters are up to some clever trick, and I want nothing of it. I want the truth. I understand what it is; I understand it. But I will not go hand in hand with the masters. They'll push me to the front when it suits them, and then walk over my bones as over a bridge to get where they want to."
At the sound of his morose words, uttered in a stubborn, thick, and forceful voice, the mother's heart contracted in pain.
"Good Lord!" she exclaimed in anguish. "Where is the truth? Can it be that Pavel does not understand? And all those who come here from the city—is it possible that they don't understand?" The serious, honest faces of Yegor, Nikolay Ivanovich, and Sashenka passed before her mind, and her heart fluttered.
"No, no!" she said, shaking her head as if to dismiss[Pg 133] the thought. "I can't believe it. They are for truth and honor and conscience; they have no evil designs; oh, no!"
"Whom are you talking about?" asked Rybin thoughtfully.
"About all of them! Every single one I met. They are not the people who will traffic in human blood, oh, no!" Perspiration burst out on her face, and her fingers trembled.
"You are not looking in the right place, mother; look farther back," said Rybin, drooping his head. "Those who are directly working in the movement may not know anything about it themselves. They think it must be so; they have the truth at heart. But there may be people behind them who are looking out only for their own selfish interests. Men won't go against themselves." And with the firm conviction of a peasant fed on centuries of distrust, he added: "No good will ever come from the masters! Take my word for it!"
"What concoction has your brain put together?" the mother asked, again seized with anxious misgiving.
"I?" Rybin looked at her, was silent for a while, then repeated: "Keep away from the masters! That's what!" He grew morosely silent again, and seemed to shrink within himself.
"I'll go away, mother," he said after a pause. "I wanted to join the fellows, to work along with them. I'm fit for the work. I can read and write. I'm persevering and not a fool. And the main thing is, I know what to say to people. But now I will go. I can't believe, and therefore I must go. I know, mother, that the people's souls are foul and besmirched. All live on envy, all want to gorge themselves; and since there's little to eat, each seeks to eat the other up."[Pg 134]
He let his head droop, and remained absorbed in thought for a while. Finally he said:
"I'll go all by myself through village and hamlet and stir the people up. It's necessary that the people should take the matter in their own hands and get to work themselves. Let them but understand—they'll find a way themselves. And so, I'm going to try to make them understand. There is no hope for them except in themselves; there's no understanding for them except in their own understanding! And that's the truth!"
"They will seize you!" said the mother in a low voice.
"They will seize me, and let me out again. And then I'll go ahead again!"
"The peasants themselves will bind you, and you will be thrown into jail."
"Well, I'll stay in jail for a time, then be released, and I'll go on again. As for the peasants, they'll bind me once, twice, and then they will understand that they ought not to bind me, but listen to me. I'll tell them: "I don't ask you to believe me; I want you just to listen to me!" And if they listen, they will believe."
Both the mother and Rybin spoke slowly, as if testing every word before uttering it.
"There's little joy for me in this, mother," said Rybin. "I have lived here of late, and gobbled up a deal of stuff. Yes; I understand some, too! And now I feel as if I were burying a child."
"You'll perish, Mikhaïl Ivanych!" said the mother, shaking her head sadly.
His dark, deep eyes looked at her with a questioning, expectant look. His powerful body bent forward, propped by his hands resting on the seat of the chair,[Pg 135] and his swarthy face seemed pale in the black frame of his beard.
"Did you hear what Christ said about the seed? 'Thou shalt not die, but rise to life again in the new ear.' I don't regard myself as near death at all. I am shrewd. I follow a straighter course than the others. You can get further that way. Only, you see, I feel sorry—I don't know why." He fidgeted on his chair, then slowly rose. "I'll go to the tavern and be with the people a while. The Little Russian is not coming. Has he gotten busy already?"
"Yes!" The mother smiled. "No sooner out of prison than they rush to their work."
"That's the way it should be. Tell him about me."
They walked together slowly into the kitchen, and without looking at each other exchanged brief remarks:
"I'll tell him," she promised.
"Good-by! When do you quit your job?"
"I have already."
"When are you going?"
"To-morrow, early in the morning. Good-by!"
He bent his head and crawled off the porch reluctantly, it seemed, and clumsily. The mother stood for a moment at the door listening to the heavy departing footsteps and to the doubts that stirred in her heart. Then she noiselessly turned away into the room, and drawing the curtain peered through the window. Black darkness stood behind, motionless, waiting, gaping, with its flat, abysmal mouth.
"I live in the night!" she thought. "In the night forever!" She felt a pity for the black-bearded, sedate peasant. He was so broad and strong—and yet there was a certain helplessness about him, as about all the people.[Pg 136]
Presently Andrey came in gay and vivacious. When the mother told him about Rybin, he exclaimed:
"Going, is he? Well, let him go through the villages. Let him ring forth the word of truth. Let him arouse the people. It's hard for him here with us."
"He was talking about the masters. Is there anything in it?" she inquired circumspectly. "Isn't it possible that they want to deceive you?"
"It bothers you, mother, doesn't it?" The Little Russian laughed. "Oh, mother dear—money! If we only had money! We are still living on charity. Take, for instance, Nikolay Ivanych. He earns seventy-five rubles a month, and gives us fifty! And others do the same. And the hungry students send us money sometimes, which they collect penny by penny. And as to the masters, of course there are different kinds among them. Some of them will deceive us, and some will leave us; but the best will stay with us and march with us up to our holiday." He clapped his hands, and rubbing them vigorously against each other continued: "But not even the flight of an eagle's wings will enable anyone to reach that holiday, so we'll make a little one for the first of May. It will be jolly."
His words and his vivacity dispelled the alarm excited in the mother's heart by Rybin. The Little Russian walked up and down the room, his feet sounding on the floor. He rubbed his head with one hand and his chest with the other, and spoke looking at the floor:
"You know, sometimes you have a wonderful feeling living in your heart. It seems to you that wherever you go, all men are comrades; all burn with one and the same fire; all are merry; all are good. Without words they all understand one another; and no one wants to hinder or insult the other. No one feels the need of it.[Pg 137] All live in unison, but each heart sings its own song. And the songs flow like brooks into one stream, swelling into a huge river of bright joys, rolling free and wide down its course. And when you think that this will be—that it cannot help being if we so wish it—then the wonderstruck heart melts with joy. You feel like weeping—you feel so happy."
He spoke and looked as if he were searching something within himself. The mother listened and tried not to stir, so as not to disturb him and interrupt his speech. She always listened to him with more attention than to anybody else. He spoke more simply than all the rest, and his words gripped her heart more powerfully. Pavel, too, was probably looking to the future. How could it be otherwise, when one is following such a course of life? But when he looked into the remote future it was always by himself; he never spoke of what he saw. This Little Russian, however, it seemed to her, was always there with a part of his heart; the legend of the future holiday for all upon earth, always sounded in his speech. This legend rendered the meaning of her son's life, of his work, and that of all of his comrades, clear to the mother.
"And when you wake up," continued the Little Russian, tossing his head and letting his hands drop alongside his body, "and look around, you see it's all filthy and cold. All are tired and angry; human life is all churned up like mud on a busy highway, and trodden underfoot!"
He stopped in front of the mother, and with deep sorrow in his eyes, and shaking his head, added in a low, sad voice:
"Yes, it hurts, but you must—you must distrust man; you must fear him, and even hate him! Man is divided,[Pg 138] he is cut in two by life. You'd like only to love him; but how is it possible? How can you forgive a man if he goes against you like a wild beast, does not recognize that there is a living soul in you, and kicks your face—a human face! You must not forgive. It's not for yourself that you mustn't. I'd stand all the insults as far as I myself am concerned; but I don't want to show indulgence for insults. I don't want to let them learn on my back how to beat others!"
His eyes now sparkled with a cold gleam; he inclined his head doggedly, and continued in a more resolute tone:
"I must not forgive anything that is noxious, even though it does not hurt! I'm not alone in the world. If I allow myself to be insulted to-day—maybe I can afford to laugh at the insult, maybe it doesn't sting me at all—but, having tested his strength on me, the offender will proceed to flay some one else the next day! That's why one is compelled to discriminate between people, to keep a firm grip on one's heart, and to classify mankind—these belong to me, those are strangers."
The mother thought of the officer and Sashenka, and said with a sigh:
"What sort of bread can you expect from unbolted meal?"
"That's it; that's the trouble!" the Little Russian exclaimed. "You must look with two kinds of eyes; two hearts throb in your bosom. The one loves all; the other says: 'Halt! You mustn't!'"
The figure of her husband, somber and ponderous, like a huge moss-covered stone, now rose in her memory. She made a mental image for herself of the Little Russian as married to Natasha, and her son as the husband of Sashenka.[Pg 139]
"And why?" asked the Little Russian, warming up. "It's so plainly evident that it's downright ridiculous—simply because men don't stand on an equal footing. Then let's equalize them, put them all in one row! Let's divide equally all that's produced by the brains and all that's made by the hands. Let's not keep one another in the slavery of fear and envy, in the thraldom of greed and stupidity!"
The mother and the Little Russian now began to carry on such conversations with each other frequently. He was again taken into the factory. He turned over all his earnings to the mother, and she took the money from him with as little fuss as from Pavel. Sometimes Andrey would suggest with a twinkle in his eyes:
"Shall we read a little, mother, eh?"
She would invariably refuse, playfully but resolutely. The twinkle in his eyes discomfited her, and she thought to herself, with a slight feeling of offense: "If you laugh at me, then why do you ask me to read with you?"
He noticed that the mother began to ask him with increasing frequency for the meaning of this or that book word. She always looked aside when asking for such information, and spoke in a monotonous tone of indifference. He divined that she was studying by herself in secret, understood her bashfulness, and ceased to invite her to read with him. Shortly afterwards she said to him:
"My eyes are getting weak, Andriusha. I guess I need glasses."
"All right! Next Sunday I'll take you to a physician in the city, a friend of mine, and you shall have glasses!"
She had already been three times in the prison to ask for a meeting with Pavel, and each time the general of the gendarmes, a gray old man with purple cheeks and a huge nose, turned her gently away.[Pg 140]
"In about a week, little mother, not before! A week from now we shall see, but at present it's impossible!"
He was a round, well-fed creature, and somehow reminded her of a ripe plum, somewhat spoiled by too long keeping, and already covered with a downy mold. He kept constantly picking his small, white teeth with a sharp yellow toothpick. There was a little smile in his small greenish eyes, and his voice had a friendly, caressing sound.
"Polite!" said the mother to the Little Russian with a thoughtful air. "Always with a smile on him. I don't think it's right. When a man is tending to affairs like these, I don't think he ought to grin."
"Yes, yes. They are so gentle, always smiling. If they should be told: 'Look here, this man is honest and wise, he is dangerous to us; hang him!' they would still smile and hang him, and keep on smiling."
"The one who made the search in our place is the better of the two; he is simpler. You can see at once that he is a dog."
"None of them are human beings; they are used to stun the people and render them insensible. They are tools, the means wherewith our kind is rendered more convenient to the state. They themselves have already been so fixed that they have become convenient instruments in the hand that governs us. They can do whatever they are told to do without thought, without asking why it is necessary to do it."
At last Vlasova got permission to see her son, and one Sunday she was sitting modestly in a corner of the prison office, a low, narrow, dingy apartment, where a few more people were sitting and waiting for permission to see their relatives and friends. Evidently it was not the first time they were here, for they knew one[Pg 141] another and in a low voice kept up a lazy, languid conversation.
"Have you heard?" said a stout woman with a wizened face and a traveling bag on her lap. "At early mass to-day the church regent again ripped up the ear of one of the choir boys."
An elderly man in the uniform of a retired soldier coughed aloud and remarked:
"These choir boys are such loafers!"
A short, bald, little man with short legs, long arms, and protruding jaw, ran officiously up and down the room. Without stopping he said in a cracked, agitated voice:
"The cost of living is getting higher and higher. An inferior quality of beef, fourteen cents; bread has again risen to two and a half."
Now and then prisoners came into the room—gray, monotonous, with coarse, heavy, leather shoes. They blinked as they entered; iron chains rattled at the feet of one of them. The quiet and calm and simplicity all around produced a strange, uncouth impression. It seemed as if all had grown accustomed to their situation. Some sat there quietly, others looked on idly, while still others seemed to pay their regular visits with a sense of weariness. The mother's heart quivered with impatience, and she looked with a puzzled air at everything around her, amazed at the oppressive simplicity of life in this corner of the world. "The mother's heart quivered with impatience." "The mother's heart quivered with impatience."
Next to Vlasova sat a little old woman with a wrinkled face, but youthful eyes. She kept her thin neck turned to listen to the conversation, and looked about on all sides with a strange expression of eagerness in her face.
"Whom have you here?" Vlasova asked softly.[Pg 142]
"A son, a student," answered the old woman in a loud, brusque voice. "And you?"
"A son, also. A workingman."
"What's the name?"
"Never heard of him. How long has he been in prison?"
"And mine has been in for ten months," said the old woman, with a strange note of pride in her voice which did not escape the notice of the mother.
A tall lady dressed in black, with a thin, pale face, said lingeringly:
"They'll soon put all the decent people in prison. They can't endure them, they loathe them!"
"Yes, yes!" said the little old bald man, speaking rapidly. "All patience is disappearing. Everybody is excited; everybody is clamoring, and prices are mounting higher and higher. As a consequence the value of men is depreciating. And there is not a single, conciliatory voice heard, not one!"
"Perfectly true!" said the retired military man. "It's monstrous! What's wanted is a voice, a firm voice to cry, 'Silence!' Yes, that's what we want—a firm voice!"
The conversation became more general and animated. Everybody was in a hurry to give his opinion about life; but all spoke in a half-subdued voice, and the mother noticed a tone of hostility in all, which was new to her. At home they spoke differently, more intelligibly, more simply, and more loudly.
The fat warden with a square red beard called out her name, looked her over from head to foot, and telling her to follow him, walked off limping. She followed[Pg 143] him, and felt like pushing him to make him go faster. Pavel stood in a small room, and on seeing his mother smiled and put out his hand to her. She grasped it, laughed, blinked swiftly, and at a loss for words merely asked softly:
"How are you? How are you?"
"Compose yourself, mother." Pavel pressed her hand.
"It's all right! It's all right!"
"Mother," said the warden, fetching a sigh, "suppose you move away from each other a bit. Let there be some distance between you." He yawned aloud.
Pavel asked the mother about her health and about home. She waited for some other questions, sought them in her son's eyes, but could not find them. He was calm as usual, although his face had grown paler, and his eyes seemed larger.
"Sasha sends you her regards," she said. Pavel's eyelids quivered and fell. His face became softer and brightened with a clear, open smile. A poignant bitterness smote the mother's heart.
"Will they let you out soon?" she inquired in a tone of sudden injury and agitation. "Why have they put you in prison? Those papers and pamphlets have appeared in the factory again, anyway."
Pavel's eyes flashed with delight.
"Have they? When? Many of them?"
"It is forbidden to talk about this subject!" the warden lazily announced. "You may talk only of family matters."
"And isn't this a family matter?" retorted the mother.
"I don't know. I only know it's forbidden. You may talk about his wash and underwear and food, but[Pg 144] nothing else!" insisted the warden, his voice, however, expressing utter indifference.
"All right," said Pavel. "Keep to domestic affairs, mother. What are you doing?"
She answered boldly, seized with youthful ardor:
"I carry all this to the factory." She paused with a smile and continued: "Sour soup, gruel, all Marya's cookery, and other stuff."
Pavel understood. The muscles of his face quivered with restrained laughter. He ran his fingers through his hair and said in a tender tone, such as she had never heard him use:
"My own dear mother! That's good! It's good you've found something to do, so it isn't tedious for you. You don't feel lonesome, do you, mother?"
"When the leaflets appeared, they searched me, too," she said, not without a certain pride.
"Again on this subject!" said the warden in an offended tone. "I tell you it's forbidden, it's not allowed. They have deprived him of liberty so that he shouldn't know anything about it; and here you are with your news. You ought to know it's forbidden!"
"Well, leave it, mother," said Pavel. "Matvey Ivanovich is a good man. You mustn't do anything to provoke him. We get along together very well. It's by chance he's here to-day with us. Usually, it's the assistant superintendent who is present on such occasions. That's why Matvey Ivanovich is afraid you will say something you oughtn't to."
"Time's up!" announced the warden looking at his watch. "Take your leave!"
"Well, thank you," said Pavel. "Thank you, my darling mother! Don't worry now. They'll let me out soon."[Pg 145]
He embraced her, pressed her warmly to his bosom, and kissed her. Touched by his endearments, and happy, she burst into tears.
"Now separate!" said the warden, and as he walked off with the mother he mumbled:
"Don't cry! They'll let him out; they'll let everybody out. It's too crowded here."
At home the mother told the Little Russian of her conversation with Pavel, and her face wore a broad smile.
"I told him! Yes, indeed! And cleverly, too. He understood!" and, heaving a melancholy sigh: "Oh, yes, he understood; otherwise he wouldn't have been so tender and affectionate. He has never been that way before."
"Oh, mother!" the Little Russian laughed. "No matter what other people may want, a mother always wants affection. You certainly have a heart plenty big enough for one man!"
"But those people! Just think, Andriusha!" she suddenly exclaimed, amazement in her tone. "How used they get to all this! Their children are taken away from them, are thrown into dungeons, and, mind you, it's as nothing to them! They come, sit about, wait, and talk. What do you think of that? If intelligent people are that way, if they can so easily get accustomed to a thing like that, then what's to be said about the common people?"
"That's natural," said the Little Russian with his usual smile. "The law after all is not so harsh toward them as toward us. And they need the law more than we do. So that when the law hits them on the head, although they cry out they do not cry very loud. Your own stick does not fall upon you so heavily. For them the laws are to some extent a protection, but for us they are only chains to keep us bound so we can't kick."[Pg 146]
Three days afterwards in the evening, when the mother sat at the table knitting stockings and the Little Russian was reading to her from a book about the revolt of the Roman slaves, a loud knock was heard at the door. The Little Russian went to open it and admitted Vyesovshchikov with a bundle under his arm, his hat pushed back on his head, and mud up to his knees.
"I was passing by, and seeing a light in your house, I dropped in to ask you how you are. I've come straight from the prison."
He spoke in a strange voice. He seized Vlasov's hand and wrung it violently as he added: "Pavel sends you his regards." Irresolutely seating himself in a chair he scanned the room with his gloomy, suspicious look.
The mother was not fond of him. There was something in his angular, close-cropped head and in his small eyes that always scared her; but now she was glad to see him, and with a broad smile lighting her face she said in a tender, animated voice:
"How thin you've become! Say, Andriusha, let's dose him with tea."
"I'm putting up the samovar already!" the Little Russian called from the kitchen.
"How is Pavel? Have they let anybody else out besides yourself?"
Nikolay bent his head and answered:
"I'm the only one they've let go." He raised his eyes to the mother's face and said slowly, speaking through his teeth with ponderous emphasis: "I told them: 'Enough! Let me go! Else I'll kill some one here, and myself, too!' So they let me go!"
"Hm, hm—ye-es," said the mother, recoiling from him and involuntarily blinking when her gaze met his sharp, narrow eyes.[Pg 147]
"And how is Fedya Mazin?" shouted the Little Russian from the kitchen. "Writing poetry, is he?"
"Yes! I don't understand it," said Nikolay, shaking his head. "They've put him in a cage and he sings. There's only one thing I'm sure about, and that is I have no desire to go home."
"Why should you want to go home? What's there to attract you?" said the mother pensively. "It's empty, there's no fire burning, and it's chilly all over."
Vyesovshchikov sat silent, his eyes screwed up. Taking a box of cigarettes from his pocket he leisurely lit one of them, and looking at the gray curl of smoke dissolve before him he grinned like a big, surly dog.
"Yes, I guess it's cold. And the floor is filled with frozen cockroaches, and even the mice are frozen, too, I suppose. Pelagueya Nilovna, will you let me sleep here to-night, please?" he asked hoarsely without looking at her.
"Why, of course, Nikolay! You needn't even ask it!" the mother quickly replied. She felt embarrassed and ill at ease in Nikolay's presence, and did not know what to speak to him about. But he himself went on to talk in a strangely broken voice.
"We live in a time when children are ashamed of their own parents."
"What!" exclaimed the mother, starting.
He glanced up at her and closed his eyes. His pockmarked face looked like that of a blind man.
"I say that children have to be ashamed of their parents," he repeated, sighing aloud. "Now, don't you be afraid. It's not meant for you. Pavel will never be ashamed of you. But I am ashamed of my father, and shall never enter his house again. I have no father, no home! They have put me under the surveillance of the[Pg 148] police, else I'd go to Siberia. I think a man who won't spare himself could do a great deal in Siberia. I would free convicts there and arrange for their escape."
The mother understood, with her ready feelings, what agony this man must be undergoing, but his pain awoke no sympathetic response in her.
"Well, of course, if that's the case, then it's better for you to go," she said, in order not to offend him by silence.
Andrey came in from the kitchen, and said, smiling:
"Well, are you sermonizing, eh?"
The mother rose and walked away, saying:
"I'm going to get something to eat."
Vyesovshchikov looked at the Little Russian fixedly and suddenly declared:
"I think that some people ought to be killed off!"
"Oho! And pray what for?" asked the Little Russian calmly.
"So they cease to be."
"Ahem! And have you the right to make corpses out of living people?"
"Yes, I have."
"Where did you get it from?"
"The people themselves gave it to me."
The Little Russian stood in the middle of the room, tall and spare, swaying on his legs, with his hands thrust in his pockets, and looked down on Nikolay. Nikolay sat firmly in his chair, enveloped in clouds of smoke, with red spots on his face showing through.
"The people gave it to me!" he repeated clenching his fist. "If they kick me I have the right to strike them and punch their eyes out! Don't touch me, and I won't touch you! Let me live as I please, and I'll live in peace and not touch anybody. Maybe I'd prefer to live in the[Pg 149] woods. I'd build myself a cabin in the ravine by the brook and live there. At any rate, I'd live alone."
"Well, go and live that way, if it pleases you," said the Little Russian, shrugging his shoulders.
"Now?" asked Nikolay. He shook his head in negation and replied, striking his fist on his knee:
"Now it's impossible!"
"Who's in your way?"
"The people!" Vyesovshchikov retorted brusquely. "I'm hitched to them even unto death. They've hedged my heart around with hatred and tied me to themselves with evil. That's a strong tie! I hate them, and I will not go away; no, never! I'll be in their way. I'll harass their lives. They are in my way, I'll be in theirs. I'll answer only for myself, only for myself, and for no one else. And if my father is a thief——"
"Oh!" said the Little Russian in a low voice, moving up to Nikolay.
"And as for Isay Gorbov, I'll wring his head off! You shall see!"
"What for?" asked the Little Russian in a quiet, earnest voice.
"He shouldn't be a spy; he shouldn't go about denouncing people. It's through him my father's gone to the dogs, and it's owing to him that he now is aiming to become a spy," said Vyesovshchikov, looking at Andrey with a dark, hostile scowl.
"Oh, that's it!" exclaimed the Little Russian. "And pray, who'd blame you for that? Fools!"
"Both the fools and the wise are smeared with the same oil!" said Nikolay heavily. "Here are you a wise fellow, and Pavel, too. And do you mean to say that I am the same to you as Fedya Mazin or Samoylov, or as you two are to each other? Don't lie! I won't believe[Pg 150] you, anyway. You all push me aside to a place apart, all by myself."
"Your heart is aching, Nikolay!" said the Little Russian softly and tenderly sitting down beside him.
"Yes, it's aching, and so is your heart. But your aches seem nobler to you than mine. We are all scoundrels toward one another, that's what I say. And what have you to say to that?"
He fixed his sharp gaze on Andrey, and waited with set teeth. His mottled face remained immobile, and a quiver passed over his thick lips, as if scorched by a flame.
"I have nothing to say!" said the Little Russian, meeting Vyesovshchikov's hostile glance with a bright, warm, yet melancholy look of his blue eyes. "I know that to argue with a man at a time when all the wounds of his heart are bleeding, is only to insult him. I know it, brother."
"It's impossible to argue with me; I can't," mumbled Nikolay, lowering his eyes.
"I think," continued the Little Russian, "that each of us has gone through that, each of us has walked with bare feet over broken glass, each of us in his dark hour has gasped for breath as you are now."
"You have nothing to tell me!" said Vyesovshchikov slowly. "Nothing! My heart is so—it seems to me as if wolves were howling there!"
"And I don't want to say anything to you. Only I know that you'll get over this, perhaps not entirely, but you'll get over it!" He smiled, and added, tapping Nikolay on the back: "Why, man, this is a children's disease, something like measles! We all suffer from it, the strong less, the weak more. It comes upon a man at the period when he has found himself, but does not[Pg 151] yet understand life, and his own place in life. And when you do not see your place, and are unable to appraise your own value, it seems that you are the only, the inimitable cucumber on the face of the earth, and that no one can measure, no one can fathom your worth, and that all are eager only to eat you up. After a while you'll find out that the hearts in other people's breasts are no worse than a good part of your own heart, and you'll begin to feel better. And somewhat ashamed, too! Why should you climb up to the belfry tower, when your bell is so small that it can't be heard in the great peal of the holiday bells? Moreover, you'll see that in chorus the sound of your bell will be heard, too, but by itself the old church bells will drown it in their rumble as a fly is drowned in oil. Do you understand what I am saying?"
"Maybe I understand," Nikolay said, nodding his head. "Only I don't believe it."
The Little Russian broke into a laugh, jumped to his feet, and began to run noisily up and down the room.
"I didn't believe it either. Ah, you—wagonload!"
"Why a wagonload?" Nikolay asked with a sad smile, looking at the Little Russian.
"Because there's a resemblance!"
Suddenly Nikolay broke into a loud guffaw, his mouth opening wide.
"What is it?" the Little Russian asked in surprise, stopping in front of him.
"It struck me that he'd be a fool who'd want to insult you!" Nikolay declared, shaking his head.
"Why, how can you insult me?" asked the Little Russian, shrugging his shoulders.
"I don't know," said Vyesovshchikov, grinning good-naturedly or perhaps condescendingly. "I only wanted[Pg 152] to say that a man must feel mighty ashamed of himself after he'd insulted you."
"There now! See where you got to!" laughed the Little Russian.
"Andriusha!" the mother called from the kitchen. "Come get the samovar. It's ready!"
Andrey walked out of the room, and Vyesovshchikov, left alone, looked about, stretched out his foot sheathed in a coarse, heavy boot, looked at it, bent down, and felt the stout calf of his legs. Then he raised one hand to his face, carefully examined the palm, and turned it around. His short-fingered hand was thick, and covered with yellowish hair. He waved it in the air, and arose.
When Andrey brought in the samovar, Vyesovshchikov was standing before the mirror, and greeted him with these words:
"It's a long time since I've seen my face." Then he laughed and added: "It's an ugly face I have!"
"What's that to you?" asked Andrey, turning a curious look upon him.
"Sashenka says the face is the mirror of the heart!" Nikolay replied, bringing out the words slowly.
"It's not true, though!" the little Russian ejaculated. "She has a nose like a mushroom, cheek bones like a pair of scissors; yet her heart is like a bright little star."
They sat down to drink tea.
Vyesovshchikov took a big potato, heavily salted a slice of bread, and began to chew slowly and deliberately, like an ox.
"And how are matters here?" he asked, with his mouth full.
When Andrey cheerfully recounted to him the growth[Pg 153] of the socialist propaganda in the factory, he again grew morose and remarked dully:
"It takes too long! Too long, entirely! It ought to go faster!"
The mother regarded him, and was seized with a feeling of hostility toward this man.
"Life is not a horse; you can't set it galloping with a whip," said Andrey.
But Vyesovshchikov stubbornly shook his head, and proceeded:
"It's slow! I haven't the patience. What am I to do?" He opened his arms in a gesture of helplessness, and waited for a response.
"We all must learn and teach others. That's our business!" said Andrey, bending his head.
"And when are we going to fight?"
"There'll be more than one butchery of us up to that time, that I know!" answered the Little Russian with a smile. "But when we shall be called on to fight, that I don't know! First, you see, we must equip the head, and then the hand. That's what I think."
"The heart!" said Nikolay laconically.
"And the heart, too."
Nikolay became silent, and began to eat again. From the corner of her eye the mother stealthily regarded his broad, pockmarked face, endeavoring to find something in it to reconcile her to the unwieldy, square figure of Vyesovshchikov. Her eyebrows fluttered whenever she encountered the shooting glance of his little eyes. Andrey held his head in his hands; he became restless—he suddenly laughed, and then abruptly stopped, and began to whistle.
It seemed to the mother that she understood his[Pg 154] disquietude. Nikolay sat at the table without saying anything; and when the Little Russian addressed a question to him, he answered briefly, with evident reluctance.
The little room became too narrow and stifling for its two occupants, and they glanced, now the one, now the other, at their guest.
At length Nikolay rose and said: "I'd like to go to bed. I sat and sat in prison—suddenly they let me go; I'm off!—I'm tired!"
He went into the kitchen and stirred about for a while. Then a sudden stillness settled down. The mother listened for a sound, and whispered to Andrey: "He has something terrible in his mind!"
"Yes, he's hard to understand!" the Little Russian assented, shaking his head. "But you go to bed, mother, I am going to stay and read a while."
She went to the corner where the bed was hidden from view by chintz curtains. Andrey, sitting at the table, for a long while listened to the warm murmur of her prayers and sighs. Quickly turning the pages of the book Andrey nervously rubbed his lips, twitched his mustache with his long fingers, and scraped his feet on the floor. Ticktock, ticktock went the pendulum of the clock; and the wind moaned as it swept past the window.
Then the mother's low voice was heard:
"Oh, God! How many people there are in the world, and each one wails in his own way. Where, then, are those who feel rejoiced?"
"Soon there will be such, too, soon!" announced the Little Russian.