The mother lay motionless, with ears strained in the drowsy stillness, and before her in the darkness wavered Rybin's face covered with blood. In the loft a dry whisper could be heard.
"You see what sort of people go into this work? Even elderly people who have drunk the cup of misery to the bottom, who have worked, and for whom it is time to rest. And there they are! But you are young, sensible! Ah, Stepan!"
The thick, moist voice of the peasant responded:
"Such an affair—you mustn't take it up without thinking over it. Just wait a little while!"
"I've heard you say so before." The sounds dropped, and rose again. The voice of Stepan rang out:
"You must do it this way—at first you must take each peasant aside and speak to him by himself—for instance, to Makov Alesha, a lively man—can read and write—was wronged by the police; Shorin Sergey, also a sensible peasant; Knyazev, an honest, bold man, and that'll do to begin with. Then we'll get a group together, we look about us—yes. We must learn how to find her; and we ourselves must take a look at the people about whom she spoke. I'll shoulder my ax and go off to the city myself, making out I'm going there to earn money by splitting wood. You must proceed carefully in this matter. She's right when she says that the price a man has[Pg 393] is according to his own estimate of himself—and this is an affair in which you must set a high value on yourself when once you take it up. There's that peasant! See! You can put him even before God, not to speak of before a police commissioner. He won't yield. He stands for his own firmly—up to his knees in it. And Nikita, why his honor was suddenly pricked—a marvel? No. If the people will set out in a friendly way to do something together, they'll draw everybody after them."
"Friendly! They beat a man in front of your eyes, and you stand with your mouths wide open."
"You just wait a little while. He ought to thank God we didn't beat him ourselves, that man. Yes, indeed. Sometimes the authorities compel you to beat, and you do beat. Maybe you weep inside yourself with pity, but still you beat. People don't dare to decline from beastliness—they'll be killed themselves for it. They command you, 'Be what I want you to be—a wolf, a pig'—but to be a man is prohibited. And a bold man they'll get rid of—send to the next world. No. You must contrive for many to get bold at once, and for all to arise suddenly."
He whispered for a long time, now lowering his voice so that the mother scarcely could hear, and now bursting forth powerfully. Then the woman would stop him. "S-sh, you'll wake her."
The mother fell into a heavy dreamless sleep.
Tatyana awakened her in the early twilight, when the dusk still peered through the window with blank eyes, and when brazen sounds of the church bell floated and melted over the village in the gray, cold stillness.
"I have prepared the samovar. Take some tea or you'll be cold if you go out immediately after getting up."
Stepan, combing his tangled beard, asked the mother[Pg 394] solicitously how to find her in the city. To-day the peasant's face seemed more finished to her. While they drank tea he remarked, smiling:
"How wonderfully things happen!"
"What?" asked Tatyana.
"Why, this acquaintance—so simply."
The mother said thoughtfully, but confidently:
"In this affair there's a marvelous simplicity in everything."
The host and hostess restrained themselves from demonstrativeness in parting with her; they were sparing of words, but lavish in little attentions for her comfort.
Sitting in the post, the mother reflected that this peasant would begin to work carefully, noiselessly, like a mole, without cease, and that at his side the discontented voice of his wife would always sound, and the dry burning gleam in her green eyes would never die out of her so long as she cherished the revengeful wolfish anguish of a mother for lost children.
The mother recalled Rybin—his blood, his face, his burning eyes, his words. Her heart was compressed again with a bitter feeling of impotence; and along the entire road to the city the powerful figure of black-bearded Mikhaïl with his torn shirt, his hands bound behind his back, his disheveled head, clothed in wrath and faith in his truth, stood out before her on the drab background of the gray day. And as she regarded the figure, she thought of the numberless villages timidly pressed to the ground; of the people, faint-heartedly and secretly awaiting the coming of truth; and of the thousands of people who senselessly and silently work their whole lifetime without awaiting the coming of anything.
Life represented itself to her as an unplowed, hilly field, which mutely awaits the workers and promises a[Pg 395] harvest to free and honest hands: "Fertilize me with seeds of reason and truth; I will return them to you a hundredfold."
When from afar she saw the roofs and spires of the city, a warm joy animated and eased her perturbed, worn heart. The preoccupied faces of those people flashed up in her memory who, from day to day, without cease, in perfect confidence kindle the fire of thought and scatter the sparks over the whole earth. Her soul was flooded by the serene desire to give these people her entire force, and—doubly the love of a mother, awakened and animated by their thoughts.
At home Nikolay opened the door for the mother. He was disheveled and held a book in his hand.
"Already?" he exclaimed joyfully. "You've returned very quickly. Well, I'm glad, very glad."
His eyes blinked kindly and briskly behind his glasses. He quickly helped her off with her wraps, and said with an affectionate smile:
"And here in my place, as you see, there was a search last night. And I wondered what the reason for it could possibly be—whether something hadn't happened to you. But you were not arrested. If they had arrested you they wouldn't have let me go either."
He led her into the dining room, and continued with animation: "However, they suggested that I should be discharged from my position. That doesn't distress me. I was sick, anyway, of counting the number of horseless peasants, and ashamed to receive money for it, too; for the money actually comes from them. It would have been awkward for me to leave the position of my own accord. I am under obligations to the comrades in regard to work. And now the matter has found its own solution. I'm satisfied!"[Pg 396]
The mother sat down and looked around. One would have supposed that some powerful man in a stupid fit of insolence had knocked the walls of the house from the outside until everything inside had been jolted down. The portraits were scattered on the floor; the wall paper was torn away and stuck out in tufts; a board was pulled out of the flooring; a window sill was ripped away; the floor by the oven was strewn with ashes. The mother shook her head at the sight of this familiar picture.
"They wanted to show that they don't get money for nothing," remarked Nikolay.
On the table stood a cold samovar, unwashed dishes, sausages, and cheese on paper, along with plates, crumbs of bread, books, and coals from the samovar. The mother smiled. Nikolay also laughed in embarrassment, following the look of her eyes.
"It was I who didn't waste time in completing the picture of the upset. But never mind, Nilovna, never mind! I think they're going to come again. That's the reason I didn't pick it all up. Well, how was your trip?"
The mother started at the question. Rybin arose before her; she felt guilty at not having told of him immediately. Bending over a chair, she moved up to Nikolay and began her narrative. She tried to preserve her calm in order not to omit something as a result of excitement.
"They caught him!"
A quiver shot across Nikolay's face.
"They did? How?"
The mother stopped his questions with a gesture of her hand, and continued as if she were sitting before the very face of justice and bringing in a complaint regarding the torture of a man. Nikolay threw himself back in his chair, grew pale, and listened, biting his lips. He[Pg 397] slowly removed his glasses, put them on the table, and ran his hand over his face as if wiping away invisible cobwebs. The mother had never seen him wear so austere an expression.
When she concluded he arose, and for a minute paced the floor in silence, his fists thrust deep into his pockets. Conquering his agitation he looked almost calmly with a hard gleam in his eyes into the face of the mother, which was covered with silent tears.
"Nilovna, we mustn't waste time! Let us try, dear comrade, to take ourselves in hand." Then he remarked through his teeth:
"He must be a remarkable fellow—such nobility! It'll be hard for him in prison. Men like him feel unhappy there." Stepping in front of the mother he exclaimed in a ringing voice: "Of course, all the commissioners and sergeants are nothings. They are sticks in the hands of a clever villain, a trainer of animals. But I would kill an animal for allowing itself to be turned into a brute!" He restrained his excitement, which, however, made itself felt to the mother's perceptions. Again he strode through the room, and spoke in wrath: "See what horror! A gang of stupid people, protesting their pernicious power over the people, beat, stifle, oppress everybody. Savagery grows apace; cruelty becomes the law of life. A whole nation is depraved. Think of it! One part beats and turns brute; from immunity to punishment, sickens itself with a voluptuous greed of torture—that disgusting disease of slaves licensed to display all the power of slavish feelings and cattle habits. Others are poisoned with the desire for vengeance. Still others, beaten down to stupidity, become dumb and blind. They deprave the nation, the whole nation!" He stopped, leaning his elbows against[Pg 398] the doorpost. He clasped his head in both hands, and was silent, his teeth set.
"You involuntarily turn a beast yourself in this beastly life!"
Smiling sadly, he walked up to her, and bending over her asked, pressing her hand: "Where is your valise?"
"In the kitchen."
"A spy is standing at our gate. We won't be able to get such a big mass of papers out of the way unnoticed. There's no place to hide them in and I think they'll come again to-night. I don't want you to be arrested. So, however sorry we may be for the lost labor, let's burn the papers."
"Everything in the valise!"
She finally understood; and though sad, her pride in her success brought a complacent smile to her face.
"There's nothing in it—no leaflets." With gradually increasing animation she told how she had placed them in the hands of sympathetic peasants after Rybin's departure. Nikolay listened, at first with an uneasy frown, then in surprise, and finally exclaimed, interrupting her story:
"Say, that's capital! Nilovna, do you know—" He stammered, embarrassed, and pressing her hand, exclaimed quietly: "You touch me so by your faith in people, by your faith in the cause of their emancipation! You have such a good soul! I simply love you as I didn't love my own mother!"
Embracing his neck, she burst into happy sobs, and pressed his head to her lips.
"Maybe," he muttered, agitated and embarrassed by the newness of his feeling, "maybe I'm speaking nonsense;[Pg 399] but, upon my honest word, you are a beautiful person, Nilovna—yes!"
"My darling, I love you, too; and I love you all with my whole soul, every drop of my blood!" she said, choking with a wave of hot joy.
The two voices blended into one throbbing speech, subdued and pulsating with the great feeling that was seizing the people.
"Such a large, soft power is in you; it draws the heart toward you imperceptibly. How brightly you describe people! How well you see them!"
"I see your life; I understand it, my dear!"
"One loves you. And it's such a marvelous thing to love a person—it's so good, you know!"
"It is you, you who raise the people from the dead to life again; you!" the mother whispered hotly, stroking his head. "My dear, I think I see there's much work for you, much patience needed. Your power must not be wasted. It's so necessary for life. Listen to what else happened: there was a woman there, the wife of that man——"
Nikolay sat near her, his happy face bent aside in embarrassment, and stroked his hair. But soon he turned around again, and looking at the mother, listened greedily to her simple and clear story.
"A miracle! Every possibility of your getting into prison and suddenly— Yes, it's evident that the peasants, too, are beginning to stir. After all, it's natural. We ought to get special people for the villages. People! We haven't enough—nowhere. Life demands hundreds of hands!"
"Now, if Pasha could be free—and Andriusha," said the mother softly. Nikolay looked at her and drooped his head.[Pg 400]
"You see, Nilovna, it'll be hard for you to hear; but I'll say it, anyway—I know Pavel well; he won't leave prison. He wants to be tried; he wants to rise in all his height. He won't give up a trial, and he needn't either. He will escape from Siberia."
The mother sighed and answered softly:
"Well, he knows what's best for the cause."
Nikolay quickly jumped to his feet, suddenly seized with joy again.
"Thank you, Nilovna! I've just lived through a magnificent moment—maybe the best moment of my life. Thank you! Now, come, let's give each other a good, strong kiss!"
They embraced, looking into each other's eyes. And they gave each other firm, comradely kisses.
"That's good!" he said softly.
The mother unclasped her hands from about his neck and laughed quietly and happily.
"Um!" said Nikolay the next minute. "If your peasant there would hurry up and come here! You see, we must be sure to write a leaflet about Rybin for the village. It won't hurt him once he's come out so boldly, and it will help the cause. I'll surely do it to-day. Liudmila will print it quickly. But then arises the question—how will it get to the village?"
"I'll take it!"
"No, thank you!" Nikolay exclaimed quietly. "I'm wondering whether Vyesovshchikov won't do for it. Shall I speak to him?"
"Yes; suppose you try and instruct him."
"What'll I do then?"
Nikolay sat down to write, while the mother put the table in order, from time to time casting a look at him.[Pg 401] She saw how his pen trembled in his hand. It traveled along the paper in straight lines. Sometimes the skin on his neck quivered; he threw back his head and shut his eyes. All this moved her.
"Execute them!" she muttered under her breath. "Don't pity the villains!"
"There! It's ready!" he said, rising. "Hide the paper somewhere on your body. But know that when the gendarmes come they'll search you, too!"
"The dogs take them!" she answered calmly.
In the evening Dr. Ivan Danilovich came.
"What's gotten into the authorities all of a sudden?" he said, running about the room. "There were seven searches last night. Where's the patient?"
"He left yesterday. To-day, you see, Saturday, he reads to working people. He couldn't bring it over himself to omit the reading."
"That's stupid—to sit at readings with a fractured skull!"
"I tried to prove it to him, but unsuccessfully."
"He wanted to do a bit of boasting before the comrades," observed the mother. "Look! I've already shed my blood!"
The physician looked at her, made a fierce face, and said with set teeth:
"Ugh! ugh! you bloodthirsty person!"
"Well, Ivan, you've nothing to do here, and we're expecting guests. Go away! Nilovna, give him the paper."
"There, take it and give it to the printer."
"I've taken it; I'll deliver it. Is that all?"
"That's all. There's a spy at the gate."
"I noticed. At my door, too. Good-by! Good-by,[Pg 402] you fierce woman! And do you know, friends, a squabble in a cemetery is a fine thing after all! The whole city's talking about it. It stirs the people up and compels them to think. Your article on that subject was excellent, and it came in time. I always said that a good fight is better than a bad peace."
"All right. Go away now!"
"You're polite! Let's shake hands, Nilovna. And that fellow—he certainly behaved stupidly. Do you know where he lives?"
Nikolay gave him the address.
"I must go to him to-morrow. He's a fine fellow, eh?"
"We must keep him alive; he has good brains. It's from just such fellows that the real proletarian intellectuals ought to grow up—men to take our places when we leave for the region where evidently there are no class antagonisms. But, after all, who knows?"
"You've taken to chattering, Ivan."
"I feel happy, that's why. Well, I'm going! So you're expecting prison? I hope you get a good rest there!"
"Thank you, I'm not tired!"
The mother listened to their conversation. Their solicitude in regard to the workingmen was pleasant to her; and, as always, the calm activity of these people which did not forsake them even before the gates of the prison, astonished her.
After the physician left, Nikolay and the mother conversed quietly while awaiting their evening visitors. Then Nikolay told her at length of his comrades living in exile; of those who had already escaped and continued their work under assumed names. The bare walls of the[Pg 403] room echoed the low sounds of his voice, as if listening in incredulous amazement to the stories of modest heroes who disinterestedly devoted all their powers to the great cause of liberty.
A shadow kindly enveloped the woman, warming her heart with love for the unseen people, who in her imagination united into one huge person, full of inexhaustible, manly force. This giant slowly but incessantly strides over the earth, cleansing it, laying bare before the eyes of the people the simple and clear truth of life—the great truth that raises humanity from the dead, welcomes all equally, and promises all alike freedom from greed, from wickedness, and falsehood, the three monsters which enslaved and intimidated the whole world. The image evoked in the mother's soul a feeling similar to that with which she used to stand before an ikon. After she had offered her joyful, grateful prayer, the day had then seemed lighter than the other days of her life. Now she forgot those days. But the feeling left by them had broadened, had become brighter and better, had grown more deeply into her soul. It was more keenly alive and burned more luminously.
"But the gendarmes aren't coming!" Nikolay exclaimed suddenly, interrupting his story.
The mother looked at him, and after a pause answered in vexation:
"Oh, well, let them go to the dogs!"
"Of course! But it's time for you to go to bed, Nilovna. You must be desperately tired. You're wonderfully strong, I must say. So much commotion and disturbance, and you live through it all so lightly. Only your hair is turning gray very quickly. Now go and rest."
They pressed each other's hand and parted.