Whenever a thought was clear to the mother, she would find confirmation of the idea by drawing upon some of her rude, coarse experiences. She now felt as on that day when her father said to her roughly:
"What are you making a wry face about? A fool has been found who wants to marry you. Marry him! All girls must get husbands; all women must bear children, and all children become a burden to their parents!"
After these words she saw before her an unavoidable path running for some inexplicable reason through a dark, dreary waste. Thus it was at the present moment. In anticipation of a new approaching misfortune, she uttered speechless words, addressing some imaginary person.
This lightened her mute pain, which reverberated in her heart like a tight chord.
The next day, early in the morning, very soon after Pavel and Andrey had left, Korsunova knocked at the door alarmingly, and called out hastily:
"Isay is killed! Come, quick!"
The mother trembled; the name of the assassin flashed through her mind.
"Who did it?" she asked curtly, throwing a shawl over her shoulders.
"The man's not sitting out there mourning over Isay. He knocked him down and fled!"[Pg 180]
On the street Marya said:
"Now they'll begin to rummage about again and look for the murderer. It's a good thing your folks were at home last night. I can bear witness to that. I walked past here after midnight and glanced into the window, and saw all of you sitting around the table."
"What are you talking about, Marya? Why, who could dream of such a thing about them?" the mother ejaculated in fright.
"Well, who killed him? Some one from among your people, of course!" said Korsunova, regarding the idea as a matter to be taken for granted. "Everybody knows he spied on them."
The mother stopped to fetch breath, and put her hand to her bosom.
"What are you going on that way for? Don't be afraid! Whoever it is will reap the harvest of his own rashness. Let's go quick, or else they'll take him away!"
The mother walked on without asking herself why she went, and shaken by the thought of Vyesovshchikov.
"There—he's done it!" Her mind was held fast by the one idea.
Not far from the factory walls, on the grounds of a building recently burned down, a crowd was gathered, tramping down the coal and stirring up ash dust. It hummed and buzzed like a swarm of bees. There were many women in the crowd, even more children, and storekeepers, tavern waiters, policemen, and the gendarme Petlin, a tall old man with a woolly, silvery beard, and decorations on his breast.
Isay half reclined on the ground, his back resting against a burned joist, his bare head hanging over his right shoulder, his right hand in his trousers' pocket, and the fingers of his left hand clutching the soil.[Pg 181]
The mother looked at Isay's face. One eye, wide open, had its dim glance fixed upon his hat lying between his lazily outstretched legs. His mouth was half open in astonishment, his little shriveled body, with its pointed head and bony face, seemed to be resting. The mother crossed herself and heaved a sigh. He had been repulsive to her when alive, but now she felt a mild pity for him.
"No blood!" some one remarked in an undertone. "He was evidently knocked down with a fist blow."
A stout woman, tugging at the gendarme's hand, asked:
"Maybe he is still alive?"
"Go away!" the gendarme shouted not very loudly, withdrawing his hand.
"The doctor was here and said it was all over," somebody said to the woman.
A sarcastic, malicious voice cried aloud:
"They've choked up a denouncer's mouth. Serves him right!"
The gendarme pushed aside the women, who were crowded close about him, and asked in a threatening tone:
"Who was that? Who made that remark?"
The people scattered before him as he thrust them aside. A number took quickly to their heels, and some one in the crowd broke into a mocking laugh.
The mother went home.
"No one is sorry," she thought. The broad figure of Nikolay stood before her like a shadow, his narrow eyes had a cold, cruel look, and he wrung his right hand as if it had been hurt.
When Pavel and Andrey came to dinner, her first question was:
"Well? Did they arrest anybody for Isay's murder?"[Pg 182]
"We haven't heard anything about it," answered the Little Russian.
She saw that they were both downhearted and sullen.
"Nothing is said about Nikolay?" the mother questioned again in a low voice.
Pavel fixed his stern eyes on the mother, and said distinctly:
"No, there is no talk of him. He is not even thought of in connection with this affair. He is away. He went off on the river yesterday, and hasn't returned yet. I inquired for him."
"Thank God!" said the mother with a sigh of relief. "Thank God!"
The Little Russian looked at her, and drooped his head.
"He lies there," the mother recounted pensively, "and looks as though he were surprised; that's the way his face looks. And no one pities him; no one bestows a good word on him. He is such a tiny bit of a fellow, such a wretched-looking thing, like a bit of broken china. It seems as if he had slipped on something and fallen, and there he lies!"
At dinner Pavel suddenly dropped his spoon and exclaimed:
"That's what I don't understand!"
"What?" asked the Little Russian, who had been sitting at the table dismal and silent.
"To kill anything living because one wants to eat, that's ugly enough. To kill a beast—a beast of prey—that I can understand. I think I myself could kill a man who had turned into a beast preying upon mankind. But to kill such a disgusting, pitiful creature—I don't understand how anyone could lift his hand for an act like that!"[Pg 183]
The Little Russian raised his shoulders and dropped them again; then said:
"He was no less noxious than a beast."
"We kill a mosquito for sucking just a tiny bit of our blood," the Little Russian added in a low voice.
"Well, yes, I am not saying anything about that. I only mean to say it's so disgusting."
"What can you do?" returned Andrey with another shrug of his shoulders.
After a long pause Pavel asked:
"Could you kill a fellow like that?"
The Little Russian regarded him with his round eyes, threw a glance at the mother, and said sadly, but firmly:
"For myself, I wouldn't touch a living thing. But for comrades, for the cause, I am capable of everything. I'd even kill. I'd kill my own son."
"Oh, Andriusha!" the mother exclaimed under her breath.
He smiled and said:
"It can't be helped! Such is our life!"
"Ye-es," Pavel drawled. "Such is our life."
With sudden excitation, as if obeying some impulse from within, Andrey arose, waved his hands, and said:
"How can a man help it? It so happens that we sometimes must abhor a certain person in order to hasten the time when it will be possible only to take delight in one another. You must destroy those who hinder the progress of life, who sell human beings for money in order to buy quiet or esteem for themselves. If a Judas stands in the way of honest people, lying in wait to betray them, I should be a Judas myself if I did not destroy him. It's sinful, you say? And do they, these masters of life, do they have the right to keep soldiers[Pg 184] and executioners, public houses and prisons, places of penal servitude, and all that vile abomination by which they hold themselves in quiet security and in comfort? If it happens sometimes that I am compelled to take their stick into my own hands, what am I to do then? Why, I am going to take it, of course. I will not decline. They kill us out by the tens and hundreds. That gives me the right to raise my hand and level it against one of the enemy, against that one of their number who comes closest to me, and makes himself more directly noxious to the work of my life than the others. This is logic; but I go against logic for once. I do not need your logic now. I know that their blood can bring no results, I know that their blood is barren, fruitless! Truth grows well only on the soil irrigated with the copious rain of our own blood, and their putrid blood goes to waste, without a trace left. I know it! But I take the sin upon myself. I'll kill, if I see a need for it! I speak only for myself, mind you. My crime dies with me. It will not remain a blot upon the future. It will sully no one but myself—no one but myself."
He walked to and fro in the room, waving his hands in front of him, as if he were cutting something in the air out of his way. The mother looked at him with an expression of melancholy and alarm. She felt as though something had hit him, and that he was pained. The dangerous thoughts about murder left her. If Vyesovshchikov had not killed Isay, none of Pavel's comrades could have done the deed. Pavel listened to the Little Russian with drooping head, and Andrey stubbornly continued in a forceful tone:
"In your forward march it sometimes chances that you must go against your very own self. You must be able to give up everything—your heart and all. To give[Pg 185] your life, to die for the cause—that's simple. Give more! Give that which is dearer to you than your life! Then you will see that grow with a vigorous growth which is dearest to you—your truth!"
He stopped in the middle of the room, his face grown pale and his eyes half closed. Raising his hand and shaking it, he began slowly in a solemn tone of assurance with faith and with strength:
"There will come a time, I know, when people will take delight in one another, when each will be like a star to the other, and when each will listen to his fellow as to music. The free men will walk upon the earth, men great in their freedom. They will walk with open hearts, and the heart of each will be pure of envy and greed, and therefore all mankind will be without malice, and there will be nothing to divorce the heart from reason. Then life will be one great service to man! His figure will be raised to lofty heights—for to free men all heights are attainable. Then we shall live in truth and freedom and in beauty, and those will be accounted the best who will the more widely embrace the world with their hearts, and whose love of it will be the profoundest; those will be the best who will be the freest; for in them is the greatest beauty. Then will life be great, and the people will be great who live that life."
He ceased and straightened himself. Then swinging to and fro like the tongue of a bell, he added in a resonant voice that seemed to issue from the depths of his breast:
"So for the sake of this life I am prepared for everything! I will tear my heart out, if necessary, and will trample it with my own feet!"
His face quivered and stiffened with excitement, and great, heavy tears rolled down one after the other.[Pg 186]
Pavel raised his head and looked at him with a pale face and wide-open eyes. The mother raised herself a little over the table with a feeling that something great was growing and impending.
"What is the matter with you, Andrey?" Pavel asked softly.
The Little Russian shook his head, stretched himself like a violin string, and said, looking at the mother:
"I struck Isay."
She rose, and quickly walked up to him, all in a tremble, and seized his hands. He tried to free his right hand, but she held it firmly in her grasp and whispered hotly:
"My dear, my own, hush! It's nothing—it's nothing—nothing, Pasha! Andriushenka—oh, what a calamity! You sufferer! My darling heart!"
"Wait, mother," the Little Russian muttered hoarsely. "I'll tell you how it happened."
"Don't!" she whispered, looking at him with tears in her eyes. "Don't, Andriusha! It isn't our business. It's God's affair!"
Pavel came up to him slowly, looking at his comrade with moist eyes. He was pale, and his lips trembled. With a strange smile he said softly and slowly:
"Come, give me your hand, Andrey. I want to shake hands with you. Upon my word, I understand how hard it is for you!"
"Wait!" said the Little Russian without looking at them, shaking his head, and tearing himself away from their grasp. When he succeeded in freeing his right hand from the mother's, Pavel caught it, pressing it vigorously and wringing it.
"And you mean to tell me you killed that man?"[Pg 187] said the mother. "No, you didn't do it! If I saw it with my own eyes I wouldn't believe it."
"Stop, Andrey! Mother is right. This thing is beyond our judgment."
With one hand pressing Andrey's, Pavel laid the other on his shoulder, as if wishing to stop the tremor in his tall body. The Little Russian bent his head down toward him, and said in a broken, mournful voice:
"I didn't want to do it, you know, Pavel. It happened when you walked ahead, and I remained behind with Ivan Gusev. Isay came from around a corner and stopped to look at us, and smiled at us. Ivan walked off home, and I went on toward the factory—Isay at my side!" Andrey stopped, heaved a deep sigh, and continued: "No one ever insulted me in such an ugly way as that dog!"
The mother pulled the Little Russian by the hand toward the table, gave him a shove, and finally succeeded in seating him on a chair. She sat down at his side close to him, shoulder to shoulder. Pavel stood in front of them, holding Andrey's hand in his and pressing it.
"I understand how hard it is for you," he said.
"He told me that they know us all, that we are all on the gendarme's record, and that we are going to be dragged in before the first of May. I didn't answer, I laughed, but my blood boiled. He began to tell me that I was a clever fellow, and that I oughtn't to go on the way I was going, but that I should rather——"
The Little Russian stopped, wiped his face with his right hand, shook his head, and a dry gleam flashed in his eyes.
"I understand!" said Pavel.
"Yes," he said, "I should rather enter the service of the law." The Little Russian waved his hand, and swung[Pg 188] his clenched fist. "The law!—curse his soul!" he hissed between his teeth. "It would have been better if he had struck me in the face. It would have been easier for me, and better for him, perhaps, too! But when he spit his dirty thought into my heart that way, I could not bear it."
Andrey pulled his hand convulsively from Pavel's, and said more hoarsely with disgust in his face:
"I dealt him a back-hand blow like that, downward and aslant, and walked away. I didn't even stop to look at him; I heard him fall. He dropped and was silent. I didn't dream of anything serious. I walked on peacefully, just as if I had done no more than kick a frog with my foot. And then—what's all this? I started to work, and I heard them shouting: 'Isay is killed!' I didn't even believe it, but my hand grew numb—and I felt awkward in working with it. It didn't hurt me, but it seemed to have grown shorter."
He looked at his hand obliquely and said:
"All my life, I suppose, I won't be able to wash off that dirty stain from it."
"If only your heart is pure, my dear boy!" the mother said softly, bursting into tears.
"I don't regard myself as guilty; no, I don't!" said the Little Russian firmly. "But it's disgust. It disgusts me to carry such dirt inside of me. I had no need of it. It wasn't called for."
"What do you think of doing?" asked Pavel, giving him a suspicious look.
"What am I going to do?" the Little Russian repeated thoughtfully, drooping his head. Then raising it again he said with a smile: "I am not afraid, of course, to say that it was I who struck him. But I am ashamed to say it. I am ashamed to go to prison, and even to[Pg 189] hard labor, maybe, for such a—nothing. If some one else is accused, then I'll go and confess. But otherwise, go all of my own accord—I cannot!"
He waved his hands, rose, and repeated:
"I cannot! I am ashamed!"
The whistle blew. The Little Russian, bending his head to one side, listened to the powerful roar, and shaking himself, said:
"I am not going to work."
"Nor I," said Pavel.
"I'll go to the bath house," said the Little Russian, smiling. He got ready in silence and walked off, sullen and low-spirited.
The mother followed him with a compassionate look.
"Say what you please, Pasha, I cannot believe him! And even if I did believe him, I wouldn't lay any blame on him. No, I would not. I know it's sinful to kill a man; I believe in God and in the Lord Jesus Christ, but still I don't think Andrey guilty. I'm sorry for Isay. He's such a tiny bit of a manikin. He lies there in astonishment. When I looked at him I remembered how he threatened to have you hanged. And yet I neither felt hatred toward him nor joy because he was dead. I simply felt sorry. But now that I know by whose hand he fell I am not even sorry for him."
She suddenly became silent, reflected a while, and with a smile of surprise, exclaimed:
"Lord Jesus Christ! Do you hear what I am saying, Pasha?"
Pavel apparently had not heard her. Slowly pacing up and down the room with drooping head, he said pensively and with exasperation:
"Andrey won't forgive himself soon, if he'll forgive himself at all! There is life for you, mother. You see[Pg 190] the position in which people are placed toward one another. You don't want to, but you must strike! And strike whom? Such a helpless being. He is more wretched even than you because he is stupid. The police, the gendarmes, the soldiers, the spies—they are all our enemies, and yet they are all such people as we are. Their blood is sucked out of them just as ours is, and they are no more regarded as human beings than we are. That's the way it is. But they have set one part of the people against the other, blinded them with fear, bound them all hand and foot, squeezed them, and drained their blood, and used some as clubs against the others. They've turned men into weapons, into sticks and stones, and called it civilization, government."
He walked up to his mother and said to her firmly:
"That's crime, mother! The heinous crime of killing millions of people, the murder of millions of souls! You understand—they kill the soul! You see the difference between them and us. He killed a man unwittingly. He feels disgusted, ashamed, sick—the main thing is he feels disgusted! But they kill off thousands calmly, without a qualm, without pity, without a shudder of the heart. They kill with pleasure and with delight. And why? They stifle everybody and everything to death merely to keep the timber of their houses secure, their furniture, their silver, their gold, their worthless papers—all that cheap trash which gives them control over the people. Think, it's not for their own selves, for their persons, that they protect themselves thus, using murder and the mutilation of souls as a means—it's not for themselves they do it, but for the sake of their possessions. They do not guard themselves from within, but from without."
He bent over to her, took her hands, and shaking them said:[Pg 191]
"If you felt the abomination of it all, the disgrace and rottenness, you would understand our truth; you would then perceive how great it is, how glorious!"
The mother arose agitated, full of a desire to sink her heart into the heart of her son, and to join them in one burning, flaming torch.
"Wait, Pasha, wait!" she muttered, panting for breath. "I am a human being. I feel. Wait."
There was a loud noise of some one entering the porch. Both of them started and looked at each other.
"If it's the police coming for Andrey—" Pavel whispered.
"I know nothing—nothing!" the mother whispered back. "Oh, God!"