Three days passed in incessant conversations with Sofya and Nikolay. The mother continued to recount tales of the past, which stubbornly arose from the depths of her awakened soul, and disturbed even herself. Her past demanded an explanation. The attention with which the brother and sister listened to her opened her heart more and more widely, freeing her from the narrow, dark cage of her former life.
On the fourth day, early in the morning, she and Sofya appeared before Nikolay as burgher women, poorly clad in worn chintz skirts and blouses, with birch-bark sacks on their shoulders, and canes in their hands. This costume reduced Sofya's height and gave a yet sterner appearance to her pale face.
"You look as if you had walked about monasteries all your life," observed Nikolay on taking leave of his sister, and pressed her hand warmly. The mother again remarked the simplicity and calmness of their relation to each other. It was hard for her to get used to it. No kissing, no affectionate words passed between them; but they behaved so sincerely, so amicably and solicitously toward each other. In the life she had been accustomed to, people kissed a great deal and uttered many sentimental words, but always bit at one another like hungry dogs.
The women walked down the street in silence,[Pg 272] reached the open country, and strode on side by side along the wide beaten road between a double row of birches.
"Won't you get tired?" the mother asked.
"Do you think I haven't done much walking? All this is an old story to me."
With a merry smile, as if speaking of some glorious childhood frolics, Sofya began to tell the mother of her revolutionary work. She had had to live under a changed name, use counterfeit documents, disguise herself in various costumes in order to hide from spies, carry hundreds and hundreds of pounds of illegal books through various cities, arrange escapes for comrades in exile, and escort them abroad. She had had a printing press fixed up in her quarters, and when on learning of it the gendarmes appeared to make a search, she succeeded in a minute's time before their arrival in dressing as a servant, and walking out of the house just as her guests were entering at the gate. She met them there. Without an outer wrap, a light kerchief on her head, a tin kerosene can in her hand, she traversed the city from one end to the other in the biting cold of a winter's day. Another time she had just arrived in a strange city to pay a visit to friends. When she was already on the stairs leading to their quarters, she noticed that a search was being conducted in their apartments. To turn back was too late. Without a second's hesitation she boldly rang the bell at the door of a lower floor, and walked in with her traveling bag to unknown people. She frankly explained the position she was in.
"You can hand me over to the gendarmes if you want to; but I don't think you will," she said confidently.
The people were greatly frightened, and did not sleep the whole night. Every minute they expected the[Pg 273] sound of the gendarmes knocking at the door. Nevertheless, they could not make up their minds to deliver her over to them, and the next morning they had a hearty laugh with her over the gendarmes.
And once, dressed as a nun, she traveled in the same railroad coach, in fact, sat on the very same seat, with a spy, then in search of her. He boasted of his skill, and told her how he was conducting his search. He was certain she was riding on the same train as himself, in a second-class coach; but at every stop, after walking out, he came back saying: "Not to be seen. She must have gone to bed. They, too, get tired. Their life is a hard one, just like ours."
The mother listening to her stories laughed, and regarded her affectionately. Tall and dry, Sofya strode along the road lightly and firmly, at an even gait. In her walk, her words, and the very sound of her voice—although a bit dull, it was yet bold—in all her straight and stolid figure, there was much of robust strength, jovial daring, and thirst for space and freedom. Her eyes looked at everything with a youthful glance. She constantly spied something that gladdened her heart with childlike joy.
"See what a splendid pine!" she exclaimed, pointing out a tree to the mother.
The mother looked and stopped. It was a pine neither higher nor thicker than others.
"Ye-es, ye-es, a good tree," she said, smiling.
"Do you hear? A lark!" Sofya raised her head, and looked into the blue expanse of the sky for the merry songster. Her gray eyes flashed with a fond glance, and her body seemed to rise from the ground to meet the music ringing from an unseen source in the far-distant height. At times bending over, she plucked a[Pg 274] field flower, and with light touches of her slender, agile fingers, she fondly stroked the quivering petals and hummed quietly and prettily.
Over them burned the kindly spring sun. The blue depths flashed softly. At the sides of the road stretched a dark pine forest. The fields were verdant, birds sang, and the thick, resinous atmosphere stroked the face warmly and tenderly.
All this moved the mother's heart nearer to the woman with the bright eyes and the bright soul; and, trying to keep even pace with her, she involuntarily pressed close to Sofya, as if desiring to draw into herself her hearty boldness and freshness.
"How young you are!" the mother sighed.
"I'm thirty-two years old already!"
Vlasova smiled. "I'm not talking about that. To judge by your face, one would say you're older; but one wonders that your eyes, your voice are so fresh, so springlike, as if you were a young girl. Your life is so hard and troubled, yet your heart is smiling."
"The heart is smiling," repeated Sofya thoughtfully. "How well you speak—simple and good. A hard life, you say? But I don't feel that it is hard, and I cannot imagine a better, a more interesting life than this."
"What pleases me more than anything else is to see how you all know the roads to a human being's heart. Everything in a person opens itself out to you without fear or caution—just so, all of itself, the heart throws itself open to meet you. I'm thinking of all of you. You overcome the evil in the world—overcome it absolutely."
"We shall be victorious, because we are with the working people," said Sofya with assurance. "Our power to work, our faith in the victory of truth we obtain from you, from the people; and the people is the[Pg 275] inexhaustible source of spiritual and physical strength. In the people are vested all possibilities, and with them everything is attainable. It's necessary only to arouse their consciousness, their soul, the great soul of a child, who is not given the liberty to grow." She spoke softly and simply, and looked pensively before her down the winding depths of the road, where a bright haze was quivering.
Sofya's words awakened a complex feeling in the mother's heart. For some reason she felt sorry for her. Her pity, however, was not offensive; not bred of familiarity. She marveled that here was a lady walking on foot and carrying a dangerous burden on her back.
"Who's going to reward you for your labors?"
Sofya answered the mother's thought with pride:
"We are already rewarded for everything. We have found a life that satisfies us; we live broadly and fully, with all the power of our souls. What else can we desire?"
Filling their lungs with the aromatic air, they paced along, not swiftly, but at a good, round gait. The mother felt she was on a pilgrimage. She recollected her childhood, the fine joy with which she used to leave the village on holidays to go to a distant monastery, where there was a wonder-working icon.
Sometimes Sofya would hum some new unfamiliar songs about the sky and about love, or suddenly she would begin to recite poems about the fields and forests and the Volga. The mother listened, a smile on her face, swinging her head to the measure of the tune or rhythm, involuntarily yielding to the music. Her breast was pervaded by a soft, melancholy warmth, like the atmosphere in a little old garden on a summer night.
On the third day they arrived at the village, and the[Pg 276] mother inquired of a peasant at work in the field where the tar works were. Soon they were descending a steep woody path, on which the exposed roots of the trees formed steps through a small, round glade, which was choked up with coal and chips of wood caked with tar.
Outside a shack built of poles and branches, at a table formed simply of three unplaned boards laid on a trestle stuck firmly into the ground, sat Rybin, all blackened, his shirt open at his breast, Yefim, and two other young men. They were just dining. Rybin was the first to notice the women. Shading his eyes with his hand, he waited in silence.
"How do you do, brother Mikhaïl?" shouted the mother from afar.
He arose and leisurely walked to meet them. When he recognized the mother, he stopped and smiled and stroked his beard with his black hand.
"We are on a pilgrimage," said the mother, approaching him. "And so I thought I would stop in and see my brother. This is my friend Anna."
Proud of her resourcefulness she looked askance at Sofya's serious, stern face.
"How are you?" said Rybin, smiling grimly. He shook her hand, bowed to Sofya, and continued: "Don't lie. This isn't the city. No need of lies. These are all our own people, good people."
Yefim, sitting at the table, looked sharply at the pilgrims, and whispered something to his comrades. When the women walked up to the table, he arose and silently bowed to them. His comrades didn't stir, seeming to take no notice of the guests.
"We live here like monks," said Rybin, tapping the mother lightly on the shoulder. "No one comes to us; our master is not in the village; the mistress was[Pg 277] taken to the hospital. And now I'm a sort of superintendent. Sit down at the table. Maybe you're hungry. Yefim, bring some milk."
Without hurrying, Yefim walked into the shack. The travelers removed the sacks from their shoulders, and one of the men, a tall, lank fellow, rose from the table to help them. Another one, resting his elbows thoughtfully on the table, looked at them, scratching his head and quietly humming a song.
The pungent odor of the fresh tar blended with the stifling smell of decaying leaves dizzied the newcomers.
"This fellow is Yakob," said Rybin, pointing to the tall man, "and that one Ignaty. Well, how's your son?"
"He's in prison," the mother sighed.
"In prison again? He likes it, I suppose."
Ignaty stopped humming; Yakob took the staff from the mother's hand, and said:
"Sit down, little mother."
"Yes, why don't you sit down?" Rybin extended the invitation to Sofya.
She sat down on the stump of a tree, scrutinizing Rybin seriously and attentively.
"When did they take him?" asked Rybin, sitting down opposite the mother, and shaking his head. "You've bad luck, Nilovna."
"You're getting used to it?"
"I'm not used to it, but I see it's not to be helped."
"That's right. Well, tell us the story."
Yefim brought a pitcher of milk, took a cup from the table, rinsed it with water, and after filling it shoved it across the table to Sofya. He moved about noiselessly, listening to the mother's narrative. When the mother had concluded her short account, all were silent for a[Pg 278] moment, looking at one another. Ignaty, sitting at the table, drew a pattern with his nails on the boards. Yefim stood behind Rybin, resting his elbows on his shoulders. Yakob leaned against the trunk of a tree, his hands folded over his chest, his head inclined. Sofya observed the peasants from the corner of her eye.
"Yes," Rybin drawled sullenly. "That's the course of action they've decided on—to go out openly."
"If we were to arrange such a parade here," said Yefim, with a surly smile, "they'd hack the peasants to death."
"They certainly would," Ignaty assented, nodding his head. "No, I'll go to the factory. It's better there."
"You say Pavel's going to be tried?" asked Rybin.
"Yes. They've decided on a trial."
"Well, what'll he get? Have you heard?"
"Hard labor, or exile to Siberia for life," answered the mother softly. The three young men simultaneously turned their look on her, and Rybin, lowering his head, asked slowly:
"And when he got this affair up, did he know what was in store for him?"
"I don't know. I suppose he did."
"He did," said Sofya aloud.
All were silent, motionless, as if congealed by one cold thought.
"So," continued Rybin slowly and gravely. "I, too, think he knew. A serious man looks before he leaps. There, boys, you see, the man knew that he might be struck with a bayonet, or exiled to hard labor; but he went. He felt it was necessary for him to go, and he went. If his mother had lain across his path, he would have stepped over her body and gone his way. Wouldn't he have stepped over you, Nilovna?"[Pg 279]
"He would," said the mother shuddering and looking around. She heaved a heavy sigh. Sofya silently stroked her hand.
"There's a man for you!" said Rybin in a subdued voice, his dark eyes roving about the company. They all became silent again. The thin rays of the sun trembled like golden ribbons in the thick, odorous atmosphere. Somewhere a crow cawed with bold assurance. The mother looked around, troubled by her recollections of the first of May, and grieving for her son and Andrey.
Broken barrels lay about in confusion in the small, crowded glade. Uprooted stumps stretched out their dead, scraggy roots, and chips of wood littered the ground. Dense oaks and birches encircled the clearing, and drooped over it slightly on all sides as if desiring to sweep away and destroy this offensive rubbish and dirt.
Suddenly Yakob moved forward from the tree, stepped to one side, stopped, and shaking his head observed dryly:
"So, when we're in the army with Yefim, it's on such men as Pavel Mikhaylovich that they'll set us."
"Against whom did you think they'd make you go?" retorted Rybin glumly. "They choke us with our own hands. That's where the jugglery comes in."
"I'll join the army all the same," announced Yefim obstinately.
"Who's trying to dissuade you?" exclaimed Ignaty. "Go!" He looked Yefim straight in the face, and said with a smile: "If you're going to shoot at me, aim at the head. Don't just wound me; kill me at once."
"I hear what you're saying," Yefim replied sharply.
"Listen, boys," said Rybin, letting his glance stray about the little assembly with a deliberate, grave gesture[Pg 280] of his raised hand. "Here's a woman," pointing to the mother, "whose son is surely done for now."
"Why are you saying this?" the mother asked in a low, sorrowful voice.
"It's necessary," he answered sullenly. "It's necessary that your hair shouldn't turn gray in vain, that your heart shouldn't ache for nothing. Behold, boys! She's lost her son, but what of it? Has it killed her? Nilovna, did you bring books?"
The mother looked at him, and after a pause said:
"That's it," said Rybin, striking the table with the palm of his hand. "I knew it at once when I saw you. Why need you have come here, if not for that?" He again measured the young men with his eyes, and continued, solemnly knitting his eyebrows: "Do you see? They thrust the son out of the ranks, and the mother drops into his place."
He suddenly struck the table with both hands, and straightening himself said with an air that seemed to augur ill:
"Those——"—here he flung out a terrible oath—"those people don't know what their blind hands are sowing. They will know when our power is complete and we begin to mow down their cursed grass. They'll know it then!"
The mother was frightened. She looked at him, and saw that Mikhaïl's face had changed greatly. He had grown thinner; his beard was roughened, and his cheek bones seemed to have sharpened. The bluish whites of his eyes were threaded with thin red fibers, as if he had gone without sleep for a long time. His nose, less fleshy than formerly, had acquired a rapacious crook. His open, tar-saturated collar, attached to a shirt that had[Pg 281] once been red, exposed his dry collar bones and the thick black hair on his breast. About his whole figure there was something more tragic than before. Red sparks seemed to fly from his inflamed eyes and light the lean, dark face with the fire of unconquerable, melancholy rage. Sofya paled and was silent, her gaze riveted on the peasant. Ignaty shook his head and screwed up his eyes, and Yakob, standing at the wall again, angrily tore splinters from the boards with his blackened fingers. Yefim, behind the mother, slowly paced up and down along the length of the table.
"The other day," continued Rybin, "a government official called me up, and, says he, 'You blackguard, what did you say to the priest?' 'Why am I a blackguard?' I say. 'I earn my bread in the sweat of my brow, and I don't do anything bad to people.' That's what I said. He bawled out at me, and hit me in the face. For three days and three nights I sat in the lockup." Rybin grew infuriated. "That's the way you speak to the people, is it?" he cried. "Don't expect pardon, you devils. My wrong will be avenged, if not by me, then by another, if not on you, then on your children. Remember! The greed in your breasts has harrowed the people with iron claws. You have sowed malice; don't expect mercy!"
The wrath in Rybin seethed and bubbled; his voice shook with sounds that frightened the mother.
"And what had I said to the priest?" he continued in a lighter tone. "After the village assembly he sits with the peasants in the street, and tells them something. 'The people are a flock,' says he, 'and they always need a shepherd.' And I joke. 'If,' I say, 'they make the fox the chief in the forest, there'll be lots of feathers but no birds.' He looks at me sidewise and speaks about[Pg 282] how the people ought to be patient and pray more to God to give them the power to be patient. And I say that the people pray, but evidently God has no time, because he doesn't listen to them. The priest begins to cavil with me as to what prayers I pray. I tell him I use one prayer, like all the people, 'O Lord, teach the masters to carry bricks, eat stones, and spit wood.' He wouldn't even let me finish my sentence.—Are you a lady?" Rybin asked Sofya, suddenly breaking off his story.
"Why do you think I'm a lady?" she asked quickly, startled by the unexpectedness of his question.
"Why?" laughed Rybin. "That's the star under which you were born. That's why. You think a chintz kerchief can conceal the blot of the nobleman from the eyes of the people? We'll recognize a priest even if he's wrapped in sackcloth. Here, for instance, you put your elbows on a wet table, and you started and frowned. Besides, your back is too straight for a working woman."
Fearing he would insult Sofya with his heavy voice and his raillery, the mother said quickly and sternly:
"She's my friend, Mikhaïl Ivanovich. She's a good woman. Working in this movement has turned her hair gray. You're not very——"
Rybin fetched a deep breath.
"Why, was what I said insulting?"
Sofya looked at him dryly and queried:
"You wanted to say something to me?"
"I? Not long ago a new man came here, a cousin of Yakob. He's sick with consumption; but he's learned a thing or two. Shall we call him?"
"Call him! Why not?" answered Sofya.
Rybin looked at her, screwing up his eyes.
"Yefim," he said in a lowered voice, "you go over to him, and tell him to come here in the evening."[Pg 283]
Yefim went into the shack to get his cap; then silently, without looking at anybody, he walked off at a leisurely pace and disappeared in the woods. Rybin nodded his head in the direction he was going, saying dully:
"He's suffering torments. He's stubborn. He has to go into the army, he and Yakob, here. Yakob simply says, 'I can't.' And that fellow can't either; but he wants to; he has an object in view. He thinks he can stir the soldiers. My opinion is, you can't break through a wall with your forehead. Bayonets in their hands, off they go—where? They don't see—they're going against themselves. Yes, he's suffering. And Ignaty worries him uselessly."
"No, not at all!" said Ignaty. He knit his eyebrows, and kept his eyes turned away from Rybin. "They'll change him, and he'll become just like all the other soldiers."
"No, hardly," Rybin answered meditatively. "But, of course, it's better to run away from the army. Russia is large. Where will you find the fellow? He gets himself a passport, and goes from village to village."
"That's what I'm going to do, too," remarked Yakob, tapping his foot with a chip of wood. "Once you've made up your mind to go against the government, go straight."
The conversation dropped off. The bees and wasps circled busily around humming in the stifling atmosphere. The birds chirped, and somewhere at a distance a song was heard straying through the fields. After a pause Rybin said:
"Well, we've got to get to work. Do you want to rest? There are boards inside the shanty. Pick up some dry leaves for them, Yakob. And you, mother, give us the books. Where are they?"[Pg 284]
The mother and Sofya began to untie their sacks. Rybin bent down over them, and said with satisfaction:
"That's it! Well, well—not a few, I see. Have you been in this business a long time? What's your name?" he turned toward Sofya.
"Anna Ivanovna. Twelve years. Why?"
"Have you been in prison?"
He was silent, taking a pile of books in his hand, and said to her, showing his teeth:
"Don't take offense at the way I speak. A peasant and a nobleman are like tar and water. It's hard for them to mix. They jump away from each other."
"I'm not a lady. I'm a human being," Sofya retorted with a quiet laugh.
"That may be. It's hard for me to believe it; but they say it happens. They say that a dog was once a wolf. Now I'll hide these books."
Ignaty and Yakob walked up to him, and both stretched out their hands.
"Give us some."
"Are they all the same?" Rybin asked of Sofya.
"No, they're different. There's a newspaper here, too."
The three men quickly walked into the shack.
"The peasant is on fire," said the mother in a low voice, looking after Rybin thoughtfully.
"Yes," answered Sofya. "I've never seen such a face as his—such a martyrlike face. Let's go inside, too. I want to look at them."
When the women reached the door they found the men already engrossed in the newspapers. Ignaty was[Pg 285] sitting on the board, the newspaper spread on his knees, and his fingers run through his hair. He raised his head, gave the women a rapid glance, and bent over his paper again. Rybin was standing to let the ray of sun that penetrated a chink in the roof fall on his paper. He moved his lips as he read. Ignaty read kneeling, with his breast against the edge of the board.
Sofya felt the eagerness of the men for the word of truth. Her face brightened with a joyful smile. Walking carefully over to a corner, she sat down next to the mother, her arm on the mother's shoulder, and gazed about silently.
"Uncle Mikhaïl, they're rough on us peasants," muttered Yakob without turning.
Rybin looked around at him, and answered with a smile:
"For love of us. He who loves does not insult, no matter what he says."
Ignaty drew a deep breath, raised his head, smiled satirically, and closing his eyes said with a scowl:
"Here it says: 'The peasant has ceased to be a human being.' Of course he has." Over his simple, open face glided a shadow of offense. "Well, try to wear my skin for a day or so, and turn around in it, and then we'll see what you'll be like, you wiseacre, you!"
"I'm going to lie down," said the mother quietly. "I got tired, after all. My head is going around. And you?" she asked Sofya.
"I don't want to."
The mother stretched herself on the board and soon fell asleep. Sofya sat over her looking at the people reading. When the bees buzzed about the mother's face, she solicitously drove them away.
Rybin came up and asked:[Pg 286]
"Is she asleep?"
He was silent for a moment, looked fixedly at the calm sleeping face, and said softly:
"She is probably the first mother who has followed in the footsteps of her son—the first."
"Let's not disturb her; let's go away," suggested Sofya.
"Well, we have to work. I'd like to have a chat with you; but we'll put it off until evening. Come, boys."