The three men walked away, leaving Sofya in the cabin. Then from a distance came the sound of the ax blows, the echo straying through the foliage. In a half-dreamy condition of repose, intoxicated with the spicy odor of the forest, Sofya sat just outside the door, humming a song, and watching the approach of evening, which gradually enfolded the forest. Her gray eyes smiled softly at some one. The reddening rays of the sun fell more and more aslant. The busy chirping of the birds died away. The forest darkened, and seemed to grow denser. The trees moved in more closely about the choked-up glade, and gave it a more friendly embrace, covering it with shadows. Cows were lowing in the distance. The tar men came, all four together, content that the work was ended.
Awakened by their voices the mother walked out from the cabin, yawning and smiling. Rybin was calmer and less gloomy. The surplus of his excitement was drowned in exhaustion.
"Ignaty," he said, "let's have our tea. We do housekeeping here by turns. To-day Ignaty provides us with food and drink."
"To-day I'd be glad to yield my turn," remarked Ignaty, gathering up pieces of wood and branches for an open-air fire.
"We're all interested in our guests," said Yefim, sitting down by Sofya's side.[Pg 288]
"I'll help you," said Yakob softly.
He brought out a big loaf of bread baked in hot ashes, and began to cut it and place the pieces on the table.
"Listen!" exclaimed Yefim. "Do you hear that cough?"
Rybin listened, and nodded.
"Yes, he's coming," he said to Sofya. "The witness is coming. I would lead him through cities, put him in public squares, for the people to hear him. He always says the same thing. But everybody ought to hear it."
The shadows grew closer, the twilight thickened, and the voices sounded softer. Sofya and the mother watched the actions of the peasants. They all moved slowly and heavily with a strange sort of cautiousness. They, too, constantly followed the women with their eyes, listening attentively to their conversation.
A tall, stooping man came out of the woods into the glade, and walked slowly, firmly supporting himself on a cane. His heavy, raucous breathing was audible.
"There is Savely!" exclaimed Yakob.
"Here I am," said the man hoarsely. He stopped, and began to cough.
A shabby coat hung over him down to his very heels. From under his round, crumpled hat straggled thin, limp tufts of dry, straight, yellowish hair. His light, sparse beard grew unevenly upon his yellow, bony face; his mouth stood half-open; his eyes were sunk deep beneath his forehead, and glittered feverishly in their dark hollows.
When Rybin introduced him to Sofya he said to her:
"I heard you brought books for the people."
"Thank you in the name of the people. They themselves cannot yet understand the book of truth. They[Pg 289] cannot yet thank; so I, who have learned to understand it, render you thanks in their behalf." He breathed quickly, with short, eager breaths, strangely drawing in the air through his dry lips. His voice broke. The bony fingers of his feeble hands crept along his breast trying to button his coat.
"It's bad for you to be in the woods so late; it's damp and close here," remarked Sofya.
"Nothing is good for me any more," he answered, out of breath. "Only death!"
It was painful to listen to him. His entire figure inspired a futile pity that recognized its own powerlessness, and gave way to a sullen feeling of discomfort.
The wood pile blazed up; everything round about trembled and shook; the scorched shadows flung themselves into the woods in fright. The round face of Ignaty with its inflated cheeks shone over the fire. The flames died down, and the air began to smell of smoke. Again the trees seemed to draw close and unite with the mist on the glade, listening in strained attention to the hoarse words of the sick man.
"But as a witness of the crime, I can still bring good to the people. Look at me! I'm twenty-eight years old; but I'm dying. About ten years ago I could lift five hundred pounds on my shoulders without an effort. With such strength I thought I could go on for seventy years without dropping into the grave, and I've lived for only ten years, and can't go on any more. The masters have robbed me; they've torn forty years of my life from me; they've stolen forty years from me."
"There, that's his song," said Rybin dully.
The fire blazed up again, but now it was stronger and more vivid. Again the shadows leaped into the woods, and again darted back to the fire, quivering about it in[Pg 290] a mute, astonished dance. The wood crackled, and the leaves of the trees rustled softly. Alarmed by the waves of the heated atmosphere, the merry, vivacious tongues of fire, yellow and red, in sportive embrace, soared aloft, sowing sparks. The burning leaves flew, and the stars in the sky smiled to the sparks, luring them up to themselves.
"That's not my song. Thousands of people sing it. But they sing it to themselves, not realizing what a salutary lesson their unfortunate lives hold for all. How many men, tormented to death by work, miserable cripples, maimed, die silently from hunger! It is necessary to shout it aloud, brothers, it is necessary to shout it aloud!" He fell into a fit of coughing, bending and all a-shiver.
"Why?" asked Yefim. "My misery is my own affair. Just look at my joy."
"Don't interrupt," Rybin admonished.
"You yourself said a man mustn't boast of his misfortune," observed Yefim with a frown.
"That's a different thing. Savely's misfortune is a general affair, not merely his own. It's very different," said Rybin solemnly. "Here you have a man who has gone down to the depths and been suffocated. Now he shouts to the world, 'Look out, don't go there!'"
Yakob put a pail of cider on the table, dropped a bundle of green branches, and said to the sick man:
"Come, Savely, I've brought you some milk."
Savely shook his head in declination, but Yakob took him under the arm, lifted him, and made him walk to the table.
"Listen," said Sofya softly to Rybin. She was troubled and reproached him. "Why did you invite him here? He may die any minute."[Pg 291]
"He may," retorted Rybin. "Let him die among people. That's easier than to die alone. In the meantime let him speak. He lost his life for trifles. Let him suffer a little longer for the sake of the people. It's all right!"
"You seem to take particular delight in it," exclaimed Sofya.
"It's the masters who take pleasure in Christ as he groans on the cross. But what we want is to learn from a man, and make you learn something, too."
At the table the sick man began to speak again:
"They destroy lives with work. What for? They rob men of their lives. What for, I ask? My master—I lost my life in the textile mill of Nefidov—my master presented one prima donna with a golden wash basin. Every one of her toilet articles was gold. That basin holds my life-blood, my very life. That's for what my life went! A man killed me with work in order to comfort his mistress with my blood. He bought her a gold wash basin with my blood."
"Man is created in the image of God," said Yefim, smiling. "And that's the use to which they put the image. Fine!"
"Well, then don't be silent!" exclaimed Rybin, striking his palm on the table.
"Don't suffer it," added Yakob softly.
Ignaty laughed. The mother observed that all three men spoke little, but listened with the insatiable attention of hungry souls, and every time that Rybin spoke they looked into his face with watchful eyes. Savely's talk produced a strange, sharp smile on their faces. No feeling of pity for the sick man was to be detected in their manner.
Bending toward Sofya the mother whispered:[Pg 292]
"Is it possible that what he says is true?"
Sofya answered aloud:
"Yes, it's true. The newspapers tell about such gifts. It happened in Moscow."
"And the man wasn't executed for it?" asked Rybin dully. "But he should have been executed, he should have been led out before the people and torn to pieces. His vile, dirty flesh should have been thrown to the dogs. The people will perform great executions when once they arise. They'll shed much blood to wash away their wrongs. This blood is theirs; it has been drained from their veins; they are its masters."
"It's cold," said the sick man. Yakob helped him to rise, and led him to the fire.
The wood pile burned evenly and glaringly, and the faceless shadows quivered around it. Savely sat down on a stump, and stretched his dry, transparent hands toward the fire, coughing. Rybin nodded his head to one side, and said to Sofya in an undertone:
"That's sharper than books. That ought to be known. When they tear a workingman's hand in a machine or kill him, you can understand—the workingman himself is at fault. But in a case like this, when they suck a man's blood out of him and throw him away like a carcass—that can't be explained in any way. I can comprehend every murder; but torturing for mere sport I can't comprehend. And why do they torture the people? To what purpose do they torture us all? For fun, for mere amusement, so that they can live pleasantly on the earth; so that they can buy everything with the blood of the people, a prima donna, horses, silver knives, golden dishes, expensive toys for their children. You work, work, work, work more and more, and I'll hoard[Pg 293] money by your labor and give my mistress a golden wash basin."
The mother listened, looked, and once again, before her in the darkness, stretched the bright streak of the road that Pavel was going, and all those with whom he walked.
When they had concluded their supper, they sat around the fire, which consumed the wood quickly. Behind them hung the darkness, embracing forest and sky. The sick man with wide-open eyes looked into the fire, coughed incessantly, and shivered all over. The remnants of his life seemed to be tearing themselves from his bosom impatiently, hastening to forsake the dry body, drained by sickness.
"Maybe you'd better go into the shanty, Savely?" Yakob asked, bending over him.
"Why?" he answered with an effort. "I'll sit here. I haven't much time left to stay with people, very little time." He paused, let his eyes rove about the entire group, then with a pale smile, continued: "I feel good when I'm with you. I look at you, and think, 'Maybe you will avenge the wrongs of all who were robbed, of all the people destroyed because of greed.'"
No one replied, and he soon fell into a doze, his head limply hanging over his chest. Rybin looked at him, and said in a dull voice:
"He comes to us, sits here, and always speaks of the same thing, of this mockery of man. This is his entire soul; he feels nothing else."
"What more do you want?" said the mother thoughtfully. "If people are killed by the thousands day after day working so that their masters may throw money away for sport, what else do you want?"
"It's endlessly wearying to listen to him," said Ignaty[Pg 294] in a low voice. "When you hear this sort of thing once, you never forget it, and he keeps harping on it all the time."
"But everything is crowded into this one thing. It's his entire life, remember," remarked Rybin sullenly.
The sick man turned, opened his eyes, and lay down on the ground. Yakob rose noiselessly, walked into the cabin, brought out two short overcoats, and wrapped them about his cousin. Then he sat down beside Sofya.
The merry, ruddy face of the fire smiled irritatingly as it illumined the dark figures about it; and the voices blended mournfully with the soft rustle and crackle of the flames.
Sofya began to tell about the universal struggle of the people for the right to life, about the conflicts of the German peasants in the olden times, about the misfortunes of the Irish, about the great exploits of the workingmen of France in their frequent battling for freedom.
In the forest clothed in the velvet of night, in the little glade bounded by the dumb trees, before the sportive face of the fire, the events that shook the world rose to life again; one nation of the earth after the other passed in review, drained of its blood, exhausted by combats; the names of the great soldiers for freedom and truth were recalled.
The somewhat dull voice of the woman seemed to echo softly from the remoteness of the past. It aroused hope, it carried conviction; and the company listened in silence to its music, to the great story of their brethren in spirit. They looked into her face, lean and pale, and smiled in response to the smile of her gray eyes. Before them the cause of all the people of the world, the endless war for freedom and equality, became more vivid and assumed a greater holiness. They saw their desires[Pg 295] and thoughts in the distance, overhung with the dark, bloody curtain of the past, amid strangers unknown to them; and inwardly, both in mind and heart, they became united with the world, seeing in it friends even in olden times, friends who had unanimously resolved to obtain right upon the earth, and had consecrated their resolve with measureless suffering, and shed rivers of their own blood. With this blood, mankind dedicated itself to a new life, bright and cheerful. A feeling arose and grew of the spiritual nearness of each unto each. A new heart was born on the earth, full of hot striving to embrace all and to unite all in itself.
"A day is coming when the workingmen of all countries will raise their heads, and firmly declare, 'Enough! We want no more of this life.'" Sofya's low but powerful voice rang with assurance. "And then the fantastic power of those who are mighty by their greed will crumble; the earth will vanish from under their feet, and their support will be gone."
"That's how it will be," said Rybin, bending his head. "Don't pity yourselves, and you will conquer everything."
The men listened in silence, motionless, endeavoring in no way to break the even flow of the narrative, fearing to cut the bright thread that bound them to the world. Only occasionally some one would carefully put a piece of wood in the fire, and when a stream of sparks and smoke rose from the pile he would drive them away from the woman with a wave of his hand. "The men listened in silence." "The men listened in silence."
Once Yakob rose and said:
"Wait a moment, please." He ran into the shack and brought out wraps. With Ignaty's help he folded them about the shoulders and feet of the women.
And again Sofya spoke, picturing the day of victory,[Pg 296] inspiring people with faith in their power, arousing in them a consciousness of their oneness with all who give away their lives to barren toil for the amusement of the satiated.
At break of dawn, exhausted, she grew silent, and smiling she looked around at the thoughtful, illumined faces.
"It's time for us to go," said the mother.
"Yes, it's time," said Sofya wearily.
Some one breathed a noisy sigh.
"I am sorry you're going," said Rybin in an unusually mild tone. "You speak well. This great cause will unite people. When you know that millions want the same as you do, your heart becomes better, and in goodness there is great power."
"You offer goodness, and get the stake in return," said Yefim with a low laugh, and quickly jumped to his feet. "But they ought to go, Uncle Mikhaïl, before anybody sees them. We'll distribute the books among the people; the authorities will begin to wonder where they came from; then some one will remember having seen the pilgrims here."
"Well, thank you, mother, for your trouble," said Rybin, interrupting Yefim. "I always think of Pavel when I look at you, and you've gone the right way."
He stood before the mother, softened, with a broad, good-natured smile on his face. The atmosphere was raw, but he wore only one shirt, his collar was unbuttoned, and his breast was bared low. The mother looked at his large figure, and smiling also, advised:
"You'd better put on something; it's cold."
"There's a fire inside of me."
The three young men standing at the burning pile conversed in a low voice. At their feet the sick man lay[Pg 297] as if dead, covered with the short fur coats. The sky paled, the shadows dissolved, the leaves shivered softly, awaiting the sun.
"Well, then, we must say good-by," said Rybin, pressing Sofya's hand. "How are you to be found in the city?"
"You must look for me," said the mother.
The young men in a close group walked up to Sofya, and silently pressed her hand with awkward kindness. In each of them was evident grateful and friendly satisfaction, though they attempted to conceal the feeling which apparently embarrassed them by its novelty. Smiling with eyes dry with the sleepless night, they looked in silence into Sofya's eyes, shifting from one foot to the other.
"Won't you drink some milk before you go?" asked Yakob.
"Is there any?" queried Yefim.
"There's a little."
Ignaty, stroking his hair in confusion, announced:
"No, there isn't; I spilled it."
All three laughed. They spoke about milk, but the mother and Sofya felt that they were thinking of something else, and without words were wishing them well. This touched Sofya, and produced in her, too, embarrassment and modest reserve, which prevented her from saying anything more than a quiet and warm "Thank you, comrades."
They exchanged glances, as if the word "comrade" had given them a mild shock. The dull cough of the sick man was heard. The embers of the burning woodpile died out.
"Good-by," the peasants said in subdued tones; and the sad word rang in the women's ears a long time.[Pg 298]
They walked without haste, in the twilight of the dawn, along the wood path. The mother striding behind Sofya said:
"All this is good, just as in a dream—so good! People want to know the truth, my dear; yes, they want to know the truth. It's like being in a church on the morning of a great holiday, when the priest has not yet arrived, and it's dark and quiet; then it's raw, and the people are already gathering. Here the candles are lighted before the images, and there the lamps are lighted; and little by little, they drive away the darkness, illumining the House of God."
"True," answered Sofya. "Only here the House of God is the whole earth."
"The whole earth," the mother repeated, shaking her head thoughtfully. "It's so good that it's hard to believe."
They walked and talked about Rybin, about the sick man, about the young peasants who were so attentively silent, and who so awkwardly but eloquently expressed a feeling of grateful friendship by little attentions to the women. They came out into the open field; the sun rose to meet them. As yet invisible, he spread out over the sky a transparent fan of rosy rays, and the dewdrops in the grass glittered with the many-colored gems of brave spring joy. The birds awoke fresh from their slumber, vivifying the morning with their merry, impetuous voices. The crows flew about croaking, and flapping their wings heavily. The black rooks jumped about in the winter wheat, conversing in abrupt accents. Somewhere the orioles whistled mournfully, a note of alarm in their song. The larks sang, soaring up to meet the sun. The distance opened up, the nocturnal shadows lifting from the hills.[Pg 299]
"Sometimes a man will speak and speak to you, and you won't understand him until he succeeds in telling you some simple word; and this one word will suddenly lighten up everything," the mother said thoughtfully. "There's that sick man, for instance; I've heard and known myself how the workingmen in the factories and everywhere are squeezed; but you get used to it from childhood on, and it doesn't touch your heart much. But he suddenly tells you such an outrageous, vile thing! O Lord! Can it be that people give their whole lives away to work in order that the masters may permit themselves pleasure? That's without justification."
The thoughts of the mother were arrested by this fact. Its dull, impudent gleam threw light upon a series of similar facts, at one time known to her, but now forgotten.
"It's evident that they are satiated with everything. I know one country officer who compelled the peasants to salute his horse when it was led through the village; and he arrested everyone who failed to salute it. Now, what need had he of that? It's impossible to understand." After a pause she sighed: "The poor people are stupid from poverty, and the rich from greed."
Sofya began to hum a song bold as the morning.