The door opened slowly, and bending to pass through, Rybin strode in heavily.
"Here I am!" he said, raising his head and smiling.
He wore a short fur overcoat, all stained with tar, a pair of dark mittens stuck from his belt, and his head was covered with a shaggy fur cap.
"Are you well? Have they let you out of prison, Pavel? So, how are you, Nilovna?"
"Why, you? How glad I am to see you!"
Slowly removing his overclothes, Rybin said:
"Yes, I've turned muzhik again. You're gradually turning gentlemen, and I am turning the other way. That's it!"
Pulling his ticking shirt straight, he passed through the room, examined it attentively, and remarked:
"You can see your property has not increased, but you've grown richer in books. So! That's the dearest possession, books are, it's true. Well, tell me how things are going with you."
"Things are going forward," said Pavel.
"Yes," said Rybin.
"We plow and we sow, All high and low, Boasting is cheap, But the harvest we reap, A feast we'll make, And a rest we'll take."
"Will you have some tea?" asked the mother.
"Yes, I'll have some tea, and I'll take a sip of vodka, too; and if you'll give me something to eat, I won't decline it, either. I am glad to see you—that's what!"
"How's the world wagging with you, Mikhaïl Ivanych?" Pavel inquired, taking a seat opposite Rybin.
"So, so. Fairly well. I settled at Edilgeyev. Have you ever heard of Edilgeyev? It's a fine village. There are two fairs a year there; over two thousand inhabitants. The people are an evil pack. There's no land. It's leased out in lots. Poor soil!"
"Do you talk to them?" asked Pavel, becoming animated.
"I don't keep mum. You know I have all your leaflets with me. I grabbed them away from here—thirty-four of them. But I carry on my propaganda chiefly with the Bible. You can get something out of it. It's a thick book. It's a government book. It's published by the Holy Synod. It's easy to believe!" He gave Pavel a wink, and continued with a laugh: "But that's not enough! I have come here to you to get books. Yefim is here, too. We are transporting tar; and so we turned aside to stop at your house. You stock me up with books before Yefim comes. He doesn't have to know too much!"
"Mother," said Pavel, "go get some books! They'll know what to give you. Tell them it's for the country."
"All right. The samovar will be ready in a moment, and then I'll go."
"You have gone into this movement, too, Nilovna?" asked Rybin with a smile. "Very well. We have lots of eager candidates for books. There's a teacher there who creates a desire for them. He's a fine fellow, they[Pg 194] say, although he belongs to the clergy. We have a woman teacher, too, about seven versts from the village. But they don't work with illegal books; they're a 'law and order' crowd out there; they're afraid. But I want forbidden books—sharp, pointed books. I'll slip them through their fingers. When the police commissioners or the priest see that they are illegal books, they'll think it's the teachers who circulate them. And in the meantime I'll remain in the background."
Well content with his hard, practical sense, he grinned merrily.
"Hm!" thought the mother. "He looks like a bear and behaves like a fox."
Pavel rose, and pacing up and down the room with even steps, said reproachfully:
"We'll let you have the books, but what you want to do is not right, Mikhaïl Ivanovich."
"Why is it not right?" asked Rybin, opening his eyes in astonishment.
"You yourself ought to answer for what you do. It is not right to manage matters so that others should suffer for what you do." Pavel spoke sternly.
Rybin looked at the floor, shook his head, and said:
"I don't understand you."
"If the teachers are suspected," said Pavel, stationing himself in front of Rybin, "of distributing illegal books, don't you think they'll be put in jail for it?"
"Yes. Well, what if they are?"
"But it's you who distribute the books, not they. Then it's you that ought to go to prison."
"What a strange fellow you are!" said Rybin with a smile, striking his hand on his knee. "Who would suspect me, a muzhik, of occupying myself with such matters? Why, does such a thing happen? Books are[Pg 195] affairs of the masters, and it's for them to answer for them."
The mother felt that Pavel did not understand Rybin, and she saw that he was screwing up his eyes—a sign of anger. So she interjected in a cautious, soft voice:
"Mikhaïl Ivanovich wants to fix it so that he should be able to go on with his work, and that others should take the punishment for it."
"That's it!" said Rybin, stroking his beard.
"Mother," Pavel asked dryly, "suppose some of our people, Andrey, for example, did something behind my back, and I were put in prison for it, what would you say to that?"
The mother started, looked at her son in perplexity, and said, shaking her head in negation:
"Why, is it possible to act that way toward a comrade?"
"Aha! Yes!" Rybin drawled. "I understand you, Pavel." And with a comical wink toward the mother, he added: "This is a delicate matter, mother." And again turning to Pavel he held forth in a didactic manner: "Your ideas on this subject are very green, brother. In secret work there is no honor. Think! In the first place, they'll put those persons in prison on whom they find the books, and not the teachers. That's number one! Secondly, even though the teachers give the people only legal books to read, you know that they contain prohibited things just the same as in the forbidden books; only they are put in a different language. The truths are fewer. That's number two. I mean to say, they want the same thing that I do; only they proceed by side paths, while I travel on the broad highway. And thirdly, brother, what business have I with them? How can a traveler on foot strike up friendship with a man on horseback?[Pg 196] Toward a muzhik, maybe, I wouldn't want to act that way. But these people, one a clergyman, the other the daughter of a land proprietor, why they want to uplift the people, I cannot understand. Their ideas, the ideas of the masters, are unintelligible to me, a muzhik. What I do myself, I know, but what they are after I cannot tell. For thousands of years they have punctiliously and consistently pursued the business of being masters, and have fleeced and flayed the skins of the muzhiks; and all of a sudden they wake up and want to open the muzhik's eyes. I am not a man for fairy tales, brother, and that's in the nature of a fairy tale. That's why I can't get interested in them. The ways of the masters are strange to me. You travel in winter, and you see some living creature in front of you. But what it is—a wolf, a fox, or just a plain dog—you don't know."
The mother glanced at her son. His face wore a gloomy expression.
Rybin's eyes sparkled with a dark gleam. He looked at Pavel, combing down his beard with his fingers. His air was at once complacent and excited.
"I have no time to flirt," he said. "Life is a stern matter. We live in dog houses, not in sheep pens, and every pack barks after its own fashion."
"There are some masters," said the mother, recalling certain familiar faces, "who die for the people, and let themselves be tortured all their lives in prison."
"Their calculations are different, and their deserts are different," said Rybin. "The muzhik grown rich turns into a gentleman, and the gentleman grown poor goes to the muzhik. Willy-nilly, he must have a pure soul, if his purse is empty. Do you remember, Pavel, you explained to me that as a man lives, so he also thinks,[Pg 197] and that if the workingman says 'Yes,' the master must say 'No,' and if the workingman says 'No,' the master, because of the nature of the beast, is bound to cry 'Yes.' So you see, their natures are different one from the other. The muzhik has his nature, and the gentleman has his. When the peasant has a full stomach, the gentleman passes sleepless nights. Of course, every fold has its black sheep, and I have no desire to defend the peasants wholesale."
Rybin rose to his feet somber and powerful. His face darkened, his beard quivered as if he ground his teeth inaudibly, and he continued in a lowered voice:
"For five years I beat about from factory to factory, and got unaccustomed to the village. Then I went to the village again, looked around, and I found I could not live like that any more! You understand? I can't. You live here, you don't know hunger, you don't see such outrages. There hunger stalks after a man all his life like a shadow, and he has no hope for bread—no hope! Hunger destroys the soul of the people; the very image of man is effaced from their countenances. They do not live, they rot in dire unavoidable want. And around them the government authorities watch like ravens to see if a crumb is not left over. And if they do find a crumb, they snatch that away, too, and give you a punch in the face besides."
Rybin looked around, bent down to Pavel, his hand resting on the table:
"I even got sick and faint when I saw that life again. I looked around me—but I couldn't! However, I conquered my repulsion. 'Fiddlesticks!' I said. 'I won't let my feelings get the better of me. I'll stay here. I won't get your bread for you; but I'll cook you a pretty mess, I will.' I carry within me the wrongs of my people[Pg 198] and hatred of the oppressor. I feel these wrongs like a knife constantly cutting at my heart."
Perspiration broke out on his forehead; he shrugged his shoulders and slowly bent toward Pavel, laying a tremulous hand on his shoulder:
"Give me your help! Let me have books—such books that when a man has read them he will not be able to rest. Put a prickly hedgehog to his brains. Tell those city folks who write for you to write for the villagers also. Let them write such hot truth that it will scald the village, that the people will even rush to their death."
He raised his hand, and laying emphasis on each word, he said hoarsely:
"Let death make amends for death. That is, die so that the people should arise to life again. And let thousands die in order that hosts of people all over the earth may arise to life again. That's it! It's easy to die—but let the people rise to life again! That's a different thing! Let them rise up in rebellion!"
The mother brought in the samovar, looking askance at Rybin. His strong, heavy words oppressed her. Something in him reminded her of her husband. He, too, showed his teeth, waved his hands, and rolled up his sleeves; in him, too, there was that impatient wrath, impatient but dumb. Rybin was not dumb; he was not silent; he spoke, and therefore was less terrible.
"That's necessary," said Pavel, nodding his head. "We need a newspaper for the villages, too. Give us material, and we'll print you a newspaper."
The mother looked at her son with a smile, and shook her head. She had quietly put on her wraps and now went out of the house.
"Yes, do it. We'll give you everything. Write as simply as possible, so that even calves could understand,"[Pg 199] Rybin cried. Then, suddenly stepping back from Pavel, he said, as he shook his head:
"Ah, me, if I were a Jew! The Jew, my dear boy, is the most believing man in the world! Isaiah, the prophet, or Job, the patient, believed more strongly than Christ's apostles. They could say words to make a man's hair stand on end. But the apostles, you see, Pavel, couldn't. The prophets believed not in the church, but in themselves; they had their God in themselves. The apostles—they built churches; and the church is law. Man must believe in himself, not in law. Man carries the truth of God in his soul; he is not a police captain on earth, nor a slave! All the laws are in myself."
The kitchen door opened, and somebody walked in.
"It's Yefim," said Rybin, looking into the kitchen. "Come here, Yefim. As for you, Pavel, think! Think a whole lot. There is a great deal to think about. This is Yefim. And this man's name is Pavel. I told you about him."
A light-haired, broad-faced young fellow in a short fur overcoat, well built and evidently strong, stood before Pavel, holding his cap in both hands and looking at him from the corners of his gray eyes.
"How do you do?" he said hoarsely, as he shook hands with Pavel, and stroked his curly hair with both hands. He looked around the room, immediately spied the bookshelf, and walked over to it slowly.
"Went straight to them!" Rybin said, winking to Pavel.
Yefim started to examine the books, and said:
"A whole lot of reading here! But I suppose you haven't much time for it. Down in the village they have more time for reading."
"But less desire?" Pavel asked.[Pg 200]
"Why? They have the desire, too," answered the fellow, rubbing his chin. "The times are so now that if you don't think, you might as well lie down and die. But the people don't want to die; and so they've begun to make their brains work. 'Geology'—what's that?"
"We don't need it!" Yefim said, replacing the book on the shelf.
Rybin sighed noisily, and said:
"The peasant is not so much interested to know where the land came from as where it's gone to, how it's been snatched from underneath his feet by the gentry. It doesn't matter to him whether it's fixed or whether it revolves—that's of no importance—you can hang it on a rope, if you want to, provided it feeds him; you can nail it to the skies, provided it gives him enough to eat."
"'The History of Slavery,'" Yefim read out again, and asked Pavel: "Is it about us?"
"Here's an account of Russian serfdom, too," said Pavel, giving him another book. Yefim took it, turned it in his hands, and putting it aside, said calmly:
"That's out of date."
"Have you an apportionment of land for yourself?" inquired Pavel.
"We? Yes, we have. We are three brothers, and our portion is about ten acres and a half—all sand—good for polishing brass, but poor for making bread." After a pause he continued: "I've freed myself from the soil. What's the use? It does not feed; it ties one's hands. This is the fourth year that I'm working as a hired man. I've got to become a soldier this fall. Uncle Mikhaïl says: 'Don't go. Now,' he says, 'the soldiers are being sent to beat the people.' However, I think I'll go. The army existed at the time of Stepan Timofeyevich[Pg 201] Razin and Pugachev. The time has come to make an end of it. Don't you think so?" he asked, looking firmly at Pavel.
"Yes, the time has come." The answer was accompanied by a smile. "But it's hard. You must know what to say to soldiers, and how to say it."
"We'll learn; we'll know how," Yefim said.
"And if the superiors catch you at it, they may shoot you down," Pavel concluded, looking curiously at Yefim.
"They will show no mercy," the peasant assented calmly, and resumed his examination of the books.
"Drink your tea, Yefim; we've got to leave soon," said Rybin.
"Directly." And Yefim asked again: "Revolution is an uprising, isn't it?"
Andrey came, red, perspiring, and dejected. He shook Yefim's hand without saying anything, sat down by Rybin's side, and smiled as he looked at him.
"What's the trouble? Why so blue?" Rybin asked, tapping his knee.
"Are you a workingman, too?" asked Yefim, nodding his head toward the Little Russian.
"Yes," Andrey answered. "Why?"
"This is the first time he's seen factory workmen," explained Rybin. "He says they're different from others."
"How so?" Pavel asked.
Yefim looked carefully at Andrey and said:
"You have sharp bones; peasants' bones are rounder."
"The peasant stands more firmly on his feet," Rybin supplemented. "He feels the ground under him although he does not possess it. Yet he feels the earth. But the[Pg 202] factory workingman is something like a bird. He has no home. To-day he's here, to-morrow there. Even his wife can't attach him to the same spot. At the least provocation—farewell, my dear! and off he goes to look for something better. But the peasant wants to improve himself just where he is without moving off the spot. There's your mother!" And Rybin went out into the kitchen.
Yefim approached Pavel, and with embarrassment asked:
"Perhaps you will give me a book?"
The peasant's eyes flashed, and he said rapidly:
"I'll return it. Some of our folks bring tar not far from here. They will return it for me. Thank you! Nowadays a book is like a candle in the night to us."
Rybin, already dressed and tightly girt, came in and said to Yefim:
"Come, it's time for us to go."
"Now, I have something to read!" exclaimed Yefim, pointing to the book and smiling inwardly. When he had gone, Pavel animatedly said, turning to Andrey:
"Did you notice those fellows?"
"Y-yes!" slowly uttered the Little Russian. "Like clouds in the sunset—thick, dark clouds, moving slowly."
"Mikhaïl!" exclaimed the mother. "He looks as if he had never been in a factory! A peasant again. And how formidable he looks!"
"I'm sorry you weren't here," said Pavel to Andrey, who was sitting at the table, staring gloomily into his glass of tea. "You could have seen the play of hearts. You always talk about the heart. Rybin got up a lot of steam; he upset me, crushed me. I couldn't even reply to him. How distrustful he is of people, and how cheaply[Pg 203] he values them! Mother is right. That man has a formidable power in him."
"I noticed it," the Little Russian replied glumly. "They have poisoned people. When the peasants rise up, they'll overturn absolutely everything! They need bare land, and they will lay it bare, tear down everything." He spoke slowly, and it was evident that his mind was on something else. The mother cautiously tapped him on the shoulder.
"Pull yourself together, Andriusha."
"Wait a little, my dear mother, my own!" he begged softly and kindly. "All this is so ugly—although I didn't mean to do any harm. Wait!" And suddenly rousing himself, he said, striking the table with his hand: "Yes, Pavel, the peasant will lay the land bare for himself when he rises to his feet. He will burn everything up, as if after a plague, so that all traces of his wrongs will vanish in ashes."
"And then he will get in our way," Pavel observed softly.
"It's our business to prevent that. We are nearer to him; he trusts us; he will follow us."
"Do you know, Rybin proposes that we should publish a newspaper for the village?"
"We must do it, too. As soon as possible."
Pavel laughed and said:
"I feel bad I didn't argue with him."
"We'll have a chance to argue with him still," the Little Russian rejoined. "You keep on playing your flute; whoever has gay feet, if they haven't grown into the ground, will dance to your tune. Rybin would probably have said that we don't feel the ground under us, and need not, either. Therefore it's our business to shake it. Shake it once, and the people will be loosened[Pg 204] from it; shake it once more, and they'll tear themselves away."
The mother smiled.
"Everything seems to be simple to you, Andriusha."
"Yes, yes, it's simple," said the Little Russian, and added gloomily: "Like life." A few minutes later he said: "I'll go take a walk in the field."
"After the bath? The wind will blow through you," the mother warned.
"Well, I need a good airing."
"Look out, you'll catch a cold," Pavel said affectionately. "You'd better lie down and try to sleep."
"No, I'm going." He put on his wraps, and went out without speaking.
"It's hard for him," the mother sighed.
"You know what?" Pavel observed to her. "It's very good that you started to say 'thou' to him after that."
She looked at him in astonishment, and after reflecting a moment, said:
"Um, I didn't even notice how it came. It came all of itself. He has grown so near to me. I can't tell you in words just how I feel. Oh, such a misfortune!"
"You have a good heart, mamma," Pavel said softly.
"I'm very glad if I have. If I could only help you in some way, all of you. If I only could!"
"Don't fear, you will."
She laughed softly:
"I can't help fearing; that's exactly what I can't help. But thank you for the good word, my dear son."
"All right, mother; don't let's talk about it any more. Know that I love you; and I thank you most heartily."
She walked into the kitchen in order not to annoy him with her tears.