The next day, early in the morning, the mother was seated in the post chaise, jolting along the road washed by the autumn rain. A damp wind blew on her face, the mud splashed, and the coachman on the box, half-turned toward her, complained in a meditative snuffle:
"I say to him—my brother, that is—let's go halves. We began to divide"—he suddenly whipped the left horse and shouted angrily: "Well, well, play, your mother is a witch."
The stout autumn crows strode with a businesslike air through the bare fields. The wind whistled coldly, and the birds caught its buffets on their backs. It blew their feathers apart, and even lifted them off their feet, and, yielding to its force, they lazily flapped their wings and flew to a new spot.
"But he cheated me; I see I have nothing——"
The mother listened to the coachman's words as in a dream. A dumb thought grew in her heart. Memory brought before her a long series of events through which she had lived in the last years. On an examination of each event, she found she had actively participated in it. Formerly, life used to happen somewhere in the distance, remote from where she was, uncertain for whom and for what. Now, many things were accomplished before her[Pg 356] eyes, with her help. The result in her was a confused feeling, compounded of distrust of herself, complacency, perplexity, and sadness.
The scenery about her seemed to be slowly moving. Gray clouds floated in the sky, chasing each other heavily; wet trees flashed along the sides of the road, swinging their bare tops; little hills appeared and swam asunder. The whole turbid day seemed to be hastening to meet the sun—to be seeking it.
The drawling voice of the coachman, the sound of the bells, the humid rustle and whistle of the wind, blended in a trembling, tortuous stream, which flowed on with a monotonous force, and roused the wind.
"The rich man feels crowded, even in Paradise. That's the way it is. Once he begins to oppress, the government authorities are his friends," quoth the coachman, swaying on his seat.
While unhitching the horses at the station he said to the mother in a hopeless voice:
"If you gave me only enough for a drink——"
She gave him a coin, and tossing it in the palm of his hand, he informed her in the same hopeless tone:
"I'll take a drink for three coppers, and buy myself bread for two."
In the afternoon the mother, shaken up by the ride and chilled, reached the large village of Nikolsk. She went to a tavern and asked for tea. After placing her heavy valise under the bench, she sat at a window and looked out into an open square, covered with yellow, trampled grass, and into the town hall, a long, old building with an overhanging roof. Swine were straggling about in the square, and on the steps of the town hall sat a bald, thin-bearded peasant smoking a pipe. The clouds swam overhead in dark masses, and piled up, one absorbing the[Pg 357] other. It was dark, gloomy, and tedious. Life seemed to be in hiding.
Suddenly the village sergeant galloped up to the square, stopped his sorrel at the steps of the town hall, and waving his whip in the air, shouted to the peasant. The shouts rattled against the window panes, but the words were indistinguishable. The peasant rose and stretched his hand, pointing to something. The sergeant jumped to the ground, reeled, threw the reins to the peasant, and seizing the rails with his hands, lifted himself heavily up the steps, and disappeared behind the doors of the town hall.
Quiet reigned again. Only the horse struck the soft earth with the iron of his shoes.
A girl came into the room. A short yellow braid lay on her neck, her face was round, and her eyes kind. She bit her lips with the effort of carrying a ragged-edged tray, with dishes, in her outstretched hands. She bowed, nodding her head.
"How do you do, my good girl?" said the mother kindly.
"How do you do?"
Putting the plates and the china dishes on the table, she announced with animation:
"They've just caught a thief. They're bringing him here."
"Indeed? What sort of a thief?"
"I don't know."
"What did he do?"
"I don't know. I only heard that they caught him. The watchman of the town hall ran off for the police commissioner, and shouted: 'They've caught him. They're bringing him here.'"
The mother looked through the window. Peasants[Pg 358] gathered in the square; some walked slowly, some quickly, while buttoning their overcoats. They stopped at the steps of the town hall, and all looked to the left. It was strangely quiet. The girl also went to the window to see the street, and then silently ran from the room, banging the door after her. The mother trembled, pushed her valise farther under the bench, and throwing her shawl over her head, hurried to the door. She had to restrain a sudden, incomprehensible desire to run.
When she walked up the steps of the town hall a sharp cold struck her face and breast. She lost breath, and her legs stiffened. There, in the middle of the square, walked Rybin! His hands were bound behind his back, and on each side of him a policeman, rhythmically striking the ground with his club. At the steps stood a crowd waiting in silence.
Unconscious of the bearing of the thing, the mother's gaze was riveted on Rybin. He said something; she heard his voice, but the words did not reach the dark emptiness of her heart.
She recovered her senses, and took a deep breath. A peasant with a broad light beard was standing at the steps looking fixedly into her face with his blue eyes. Coughing and rubbing her throat with her hands, weak with fear, she asked him with an effort:
"What's the matter?"
"Well, look." The peasant turned away. Another peasant came up to her side.
"Oh, thief! How horrible you look!" shouted a woman's voice.
The policemen stepped in front of the crowd, which increased in size. Rybin's voice sounded thick:
"Peasants, I'm not a thief; I don't steal; I don't set[Pg 359] things on fire. I only fight against falsehood. That's why they seized me. Have you heard of the true books in which the truth is written about our peasant life? Well, it's because of these writings that I suffer. It's I who distributed them among the people."
The crowd surrounded Rybin more closely. His voice steadied the mother.
"Did you hear?" said a peasant in a low voice, nudging a blue-eyed neighbor, who did not answer but raised his head and again looked into the mother's face. The other peasant also looked at her. He was younger than he of the blue eyes, with a dark, sparse beard, and a lean freckled face. Then both of them turned away to the side of the steps.
"They're afraid," the mother involuntarily noted. Her attention grew keener. From the elevation of the stoop she clearly saw the dark face of Rybin, distinguished the hot gleam of his eyes. She wanted that he, too, should see her, and raised herself on tiptoe and craned her neck.
The people looked at him sullenly, distrustfully, and were silent. Only in the rear of the crowd subdued conversation was heard.
"Peasants!" said Rybin aloud, in a peculiar full voice. "Believe these papers! I shall now, perhaps, get death on account of them. The authorities beat me, they tortured me, they wanted to find out from where I got them, and they're going to beat me more. For in these writings the truth is laid down. An honest world and the truth ought to be dearer to us than bread. That's what I say."
"Why is he doing this?" softly exclaimed one of the peasants near the steps. He of the blue eyes answered:[Pg 360]
"Now it's all the same. He won't escape death, anyhow. And a man can't die twice."
The sergeant suddenly appeared on the steps of the town hall, roaring in a drunken voice:
"What is this crowd? Who's the fellow speaking?"
Suddenly precipitating himself down the steps, he seized Rybin by the hair, and pulled his head backward and forward. "Is it you speaking, you damned scoundrel? Is it you?"
The crowd, giving way, still maintained silence. The mother, in impotent grief, bowed her head; one of the peasants sighed. Rybin spoke again:
"There! Look, good people!"
"Silence!" and the sergeant struck his face.
"They bind a man's hands and then torment him, and do with him whatever they please."
"Policemen, take him! Disperse, people!" The sergeant, jumping and swinging in front of Rybin, struck him in his face, breast, and stomach.
"Don't beat him!" some one shouted dully.
"Why do you beat him?" another voice upheld the first.
"Lazy, good-for-nothing beast!"
"Come!" said the blue-eyed peasant, motioning with his head; and without hastening, the two walked toward the town hall, accompanied by a kind look from the mother. She sighed with relief. The sergeant again ran heavily up the steps, and shaking his fists in menace, bawled from his height vehemently:
"Bring him here, officers, I say! I say——"
"Don't!" a strong voice resounded in the crowd, and the mother knew it came from the blue-eyed peasant. "Boys! don't permit it! They'll take him in there and[Pg 361] beat him to death, and then they'll say we killed him. Don't permit it!"
"Peasants!" the powerful voice of Rybin roared, drowning the shouts of the sergeant. "Don't you understand your life? Don't you understand how they rob you—how they cheat you—how they drink your blood? You keep everything up; everything rests on you; you are all the power that is at the bottom of everything on earth—its whole power. And what rights have you? You have the right to starve—it's your only right!"
"He's speaking the truth, I tell you!"
Some men shouted:
"Call the commissioner of police! Where is the commissioner of police?"
"The sergeant has ridden away for him!"
"It's not our business to call the authorities!"
The noise increased as the crowd grew louder and louder.
"Speak! We won't let them beat you!"
"Officers, untie his hands!"
"No, brothers; that's not necessary!"
"Look out you don't do something you'll be sorry for!"
"I am sorry for my hands!" Rybin said evenly and resonantly, making himself heard above all the other voices. "I'll not escape, peasants. I cannot hide from my truth; it lives inside of me!"
Several men walked away from the crowd, formed different circles, and with earnest faces and shaking their heads carried on conversations. Some smiled. More and more people came running up—excited, bearing marks of having dressed quickly. They seethed like black foam about Rybin, and he rocked to and fro in[Pg 362] their midst. Raising his hands over his head and shaking them, he called into the crowd, which responded now by loud shouts, now by silent, greedy attention, to the unfamiliar, daring words:
"Thank you, good people! Thank you! I stood up for you, for your lives!" He wiped his beard and again raised his blood-covered hand. "There's my blood! It flows for the sake of truth!"
The mother, without considering, walked down the steps, but immediately returned, since on the ground she couldn't see Mikhaïl, hidden by the close-packed crowd. Something indistinctly joyous trembled in her bosom and warmed it.
"Peasants! Keep your eyes open for those writings; read them. Don't believe the authorities and the priests when they tell you those people who carry truth to us are godless rioters. The truth travels over the earth secretly; it seeks a nest among the people. To the authorities it's like a knife in the fire. They cannot accept it. It will cut them and burn them. Truth is your good friend and a sworn enemy of the authorities—that's why it hides itself."
"That's so; he's speaking the gospel!" shouted the blue-eyed peasant.
"Ah, brother! You will perish—and soon, too!"
"Who betrayed you?"
"The priest!" said one of the police.
Two peasants gave vent to hard oaths.
"Look out, boys!" a somewhat subdued cry was heard in warning.
The commissioner of police walked into the crowd—a tall, compact man, with a round, red face. His cap was cocked to one side; his mustache with one end turned up the other drooping made his face seem crooked, and it[Pg 363] was disfigured by a dull, dead grin. His left hand held a saber, his right waved broadly in the air. His heavy, firm tramp was audible. The crowd gave way before him. Something sullen and crushed appeared in their faces, and the noise died away as if it had sunk into the ground.
"What's the trouble?" asked the police commissioner, stopping in front of Rybin and measuring him with his eyes. "Why are his hands not bound? Officers, why? Bind them!" His voice was high and resonant, but colorless.
"They were tied, but the people unbound them," answered one of the policemen.
"The people! What people?" The police commissioner looked at the crowd standing in a half-circle before him. In the same monotonous, blank voice, neither elevating nor lowering it, he continued: "Who are the people?"
With a back stroke he thrust the handle of his saber against the breast of the blue-eyed peasant.
"Are you the people, Chumakov? Well, who else? You, Mishin?" and he pulled somebody's beard with his right hand.
"Disperse, you curs!"
Neither his voice nor face displayed the least agitation or threat. He spoke mechanically, with a dead calm, and with even movements of his strong, long hands, pushed the people back. The semicircle before him widened. Heads drooped, faces were turned aside.
"Well," he addressed the policeman, "what's the matter with you? Bind him!" He uttered a cynical oath and again looked at Rybin, and said nonchalantly: "Your hands behind your back, you!"
"I don't want my hands to be bound," said Rybin.[Pg 364] "I'm not going to run away, and I'm not fighting. Why should my hands be bound?"
"What?" exclaimed the police commissioner, striding up to him.
"It's enough that you torture the people, you beasts!" continued Rybin in an elevated voice. "The red day will soon come for you, too. You'll be paid back for everything."
The police commissioner stood before him, his mustached upper lip twitching. Then he drew back a step, and with a whistling voice sang out in surprise:
"Um! you damned scoundrel! Wha-at? What do you mean by your words? People, you say? A-a——"
Suddenly he dealt Rybin a quick, sharp blow in the face.
"You won't kill the truth with your fist!" shouted Rybin, drawing on him. "And you have no right to beat me, you dog!"
"I won't dare, I suppose?" the police commissioner drawled.
Again he waved his hand, aiming at Rybin's head; Rybin ducked; the blow missed, and the police commissioner almost toppled over. Some one in the crowd gave a jeering snort, and the angry shout of Mikhaïl was heard:
"Don't you dare to beat me, I say, you infernal devil! I'm no weaker than you! Look out!"
The police commissioner looked around. The people shut down on him in a narrower circle, advancing sullenly.
"Nikita!" the police commissioner called out, looking around. "Nikita, hey!" A squat peasant in a short fur overcoat emerged from the crowd. He looked on the ground, with his large disheveled head drooping.[Pg 365]
"Nikita," the police commissioner said deliberately, twirling his mustache, "give him a box on the ear—a good one!"
The peasant stepped forward, stopped in front of Rybin and raised his hand. Staring him straight in the face, Rybin stammered out heavily:
"Now look, people, how the beasts choke you with your own hands! Look! Look! Think! Why does he want to beat me—why? I ask."
The peasant raised his hand and lazily struck Mikhaïl's face.
"Ah, Nikita! don't forget God!" subdued shouts came from the crowd.
"Strike, I say!" shouted the police commissioner, pushing the peasant on the back of his neck.
The peasant stepped aside, and inclining his head, said sullenly:
"I won't do it again."
"What?" The face of the police commissioner quivered. He stamped his feet, and, cursing, suddenly flung himself upon Rybin. The blow whizzed through the air; Rybin staggered and waved his arms; with the second blow the police commissioner felled him to the ground, and, jumping around with a growl, he began to kick him on his breast, his side, and his head.
The crowd set up a hostile hum, rocked, and advanced upon the police commissioner. He noticed it and jumped away, snatching his saber from its scabbard.
"So that's what you're up to! You're rioting, are you?"
His voice trembled and broke; it had grown husky. And he lost his composure along with his voice. He drew his shoulders up about his head, bent over, and turning his blank, bright eyes on all sides, he fell back, carefully[Pg 366] feeling the ground behind him with his feet. As he withdrew he shouted hoarsely in great excitement:
"All right; take him! I'm leaving! But now, do you know, you cursed dogs, that he is a political criminal; that he is going against our Czar; that he stirs up riots—do you know it?—against the Emperor, the Czar? And you protect him; you, too, are rebels. Aha—a——"
Without budging, without moving her eyes, the strength of reason gone from her, the mother stood as if in a heavy sleep, overwhelmed by fear and pity. The outraged, sullen, wrathful shouts of the people buzzed like bees in her head.
"If he has done something wrong, lead him to court."
"And don't beat him!"
"Forgive him, your Honor!"
"Now, really, what does it mean? Without any law whatever!"
"Why, is it possible? If they begin to beat everybody that way, what'll happen then?"
"The devils! Our torturers!"
The people fell into two groups—the one surrounding the police commissioner shouted and exhorted him; the other, less numerous, remained about the beaten man, humming and sullen. Several men lifted him from the ground. The policemen again wanted to bind his hands.
"Wait a little while, you devils!" the people shouted.
Rybin wiped the blood from his face and beard and looked about in silence. His gaze glided by the face of the mother. She started, stretched herself out to him, and instinctively waved her hand. He turned away; but in a few minutes his eyes again rested on her face. It seemed to her that he straightened himself and raised his head, that his blood-covered cheeks quivered.
"Did he recognize me? I wonder if he did?"[Pg 367]
She nodded her head to him and started with a sorrowful, painful joy. But the next moment she saw that the blue-eyed peasant was standing near him and also looking at her. His gaze awakened her to the consciousness of the risk she was running.
"What am I doing? They'll take me, too."
The peasant said something to Rybin, who shook his head.
"Never mind!" he exclaimed, his voice tremulous, but clear and bold. "I'm not alone in the world. They'll not capture all the truth. In the place where I was the memory of me will remain. That's it! Even though they destroy the nest, aren't there more friends and comrades there?"
"He's saying this for me," the mother decided quickly.
"The people will build other nests for the truth; and a day will come when the eagles will fly from them into freedom. The people will emancipate themselves."
A woman brought a pail of water and, wailing and groaning, began to wash Rybin's face. Her thin, piteous voice mixed with Mikhaïl's words and hindered the mother from understanding them. A throng of peasants came up with the police commissioner in front of them. Some one shouted aloud:
"Come; I'm going to make an arrest! Who's next?"
Then the voice of the police commissioner was heard. It had changed—mortification now evident in its altered tone.
"I may strike you, but you mayn't strike me. Don't you dare, you dunce!"
"Is that so? And who are you, pray? A god?"
A confused but subdued clamor drowned Rybin's voice.[Pg 368]
"Don't argue, uncle. You're up against the authorities."
"Don't be angry, your Honor. The man's out of his wits."
"Keep still, you funny fellow!"
"Here, they'll soon take you to the city!"
"There's more law there!"
The shouts of the crowd sounded pacificatory, entreating; they blended into a thick, indistinct babel, in which there was something hopeless and pitiful. The policemen led Rybin up the steps of the town hall and disappeared with him behind the doors. People began to depart in a hurry. The mother saw the blue-eyed peasant go across the square and look at her sidewise. Her legs trembled under her knees. A dismal feeling of impotence and loneliness gnawed at her heart sickeningly.
"I mustn't go away," she thought. "I mustn't!" and holding on to the rails firmly, she waited.
The police commissioner walked up the steps of the town hall and said in a rebuking voice, which had assumed its former blankness and soullessness:
"You're fools, you damned scoundrels! You don't understand a thing, and poke your noses into an affair like this—a government affair. Cattle! You ought to thank me, fall on your knees before me for my goodness! If I were to say so, you would all be put to hard labor."
About a score of peasants stood with bared heads and listened in silence. It began to grow dusk; the clouds lowered. The blue-eyed peasant walked up to the steps, and said with a sigh:
"That's the kind of business we have here!"
"Ye-es," the mother rejoined quietly.
He looked at her with an open gaze.
"What's your occupation?" he asked after a pause.[Pg 369]
"I buy lace from the women, and linen, too."
The peasant slowly stroked his beard. Then looking up at the town hall he said gloomily and softly:
"You won't find anything of that kind here."
The mother looked down on him, and waited for a more suitable moment to depart for the tavern. The peasant's face was thoughtful and handsome and his eyes were sad. Broad-shouldered and tall, he was dressed in a patched-up coat, in a clean chintz shirt, and reddish homespun trousers. His feet were stockingless.
The mother for some reason drew a sigh of relief, and suddenly obeying an impulse from within, yielding to an instinct that got the better of her reason, she surprised herself by asking him:
"Can I stay in your house overnight?"
At the question everything in her muscles, her bones, tightened stiffly. She straightened herself, holding her breath, and fixed her eyes on the peasant. Pricking thoughts quickly flashed through her mind: "I'll ruin everybody—Nikolay Ivanovich, Sonyushka—I'll not see Pasha for a long time—they'll kill him——"
Looking on the ground, the peasant answered deliberately, folding his coat over his breast:
"Stay overnight? Yes, you can. Why not? Only my home is very poor!"
"Never mind; I'm not used to luxury," the mother answered uncalculatingly.
"You can stay with me overnight," the peasant repeated, measuring her with a searching glance.
It had already grown dark, and in the twilight his eyes shone cold, his face seemed very pale. The mother looked around, and as if dropping under distress, she said in an undertone:
"Then I'll go at once, and you'll take my valise."[Pg 370]
"All right!" He shrugged his shoulders, again folded his coat and said softly:
"There goes the wagon!"
In a few moments, after the crowd had begun to disperse, Rybin appeared again on the steps of the town hall. His hands were bound; his head and face were wrapped up in a gray cloth, and he was pushed into a waiting wagon.
"Farewell, good people!" his voice rang out in the cold evening twilight. "Search for the truth. Guard it! Believe the man who will bring you the clean word; cherish him. Don't spare yourselves in the cause of truth!"
"Silence, you dog!" shouted the voice of the police commissioner. "Policeman, start the horses up, you fool!"
"What have you to be sorry for? What sort of life have you?"
The wagon started. Sitting in it with a policeman on either side, Rybin shouted dully:
"For the sake of what are you perishing—in hunger? Strive for freedom—it'll give you bread and—truth. Farewell, good people!"
The hasty rumble of the wheels, the tramp of the horses, the shout of the police officer, enveloped his speech and muffled it.
"It's done!" said the peasant, shaking his head. "You wait at the station a little while, and I'll come soon."