The mother fell quickly into a calm sleep, and rose early in the morning, awakened by a subdued tap at the kitchen door. The knock was incessant and patiently persistent. It was still dark and quiet, and the rapping broke in alarmingly on the stillness. Dressing herself rapidly, she walked out into the kitchen, and standing at the door asked:
"I," answered an unfamiliar voice.
"Open." The quiet word was spoken in entreaty.
The mother lifted the hook, pushed the door with her foot, and Ignaty entered, saying cheerfully:
"Well, so I'm not mistaken. I'm at the right place."
He was spattered with mud up to his belt. His face was gray, his eyes fallen.
"We've gotten into trouble in our place," he whispered, locking the door behind him.
"I know it."
The reply astonished the young man. He blinked and asked:
"How? Where from?"
She explained in a few rapid words, and asked:
"Did they take the other comrades, too?"
"They weren't there. They had gone off to be recruited. Five were captured, including Rybin."
He snuffled and said, smiling:[Pg 405]
"And I was left over. I guess they're looking for me. Let them look. I'm not going back there again, not for anything. There are other people there yet, some seven young men and a girl. Never mind! They're all reliable."
"How did you find this place?" The mother smiled.
The door from the room opened quietly.
"I?" Seating himself on a bench and looking around, Ignaty exclaimed: "They crawled up at night, straight to the tar works. Well, a minute before they came the forester ran up to us and knocked on the window. 'Look out, boys,' says he, 'they're coming on you.'"
He laughed softly, wiped his face with the flap of his coat, and continued:
"Well, they can't stun Uncle Mikhaïl even with a hammer. At once he says to me, 'Ignaty, run away to the city, quick! You remember the elderly woman.' And he himself writes a note. 'There, go! Good-by, brother.' He pushed me in the back. I flung out of the hut. I scrambled along on all fours through the bushes, and I hear them coming. There must have been a lot of them. You could hear the rustling on all sides, the devils—like a moose around the tar works. I lay in the bushes. They passed by me. Then I rose and off I went; and for two nights and a whole day I walked without stopping. My feet'll ache for a week."
He was evidently satisfied with himself. A smile shone in his hazel eyes. His full red lips quivered.
"I'll set you up with some tea soon. You wash yourself while I get the samovar ready."
"I'll give you the note." He raised his leg with difficulty, and frowning and groaning put his foot on the bench and began to untie the leg wrappings.[Pg 406]
"I got frightened. 'Well,' thinks I, 'I'm a goner.'"
Nikolay appeared at the door. Ignaty in embarrassment dropped his foot to the floor and wanted to rise, but staggered and fell heavily on the bench, catching himself with his hands.
"You sit still!" exclaimed the mother.
"How do you do, comrade?" said Nikolay, screwing up his eyes good-naturedly and nodding his head. "Allow me, I'll help you."
Kneeling on the floor in front of the peasant, he quickly unwound the dirty, damp wrappings.
"Well!" the fellow exclaimed quietly, pulling back his foot and blinking in astonishment. He regarded the mother, who said, without paying attention to his look:
"His legs ought to be rubbed down with alcohol."
"Of course!" said Nikolay.
Ignaty snorted in embarrassment. Nikolay found the note, straightened it out, looked at it, and handed the gray, crumpled piece of paper to the mother.
"'Mother, don't let the affair go without your attention. Tell the tall lady not to forget to have them write more for our cause, I beg of you. Good-by. Rybin.'"
"My darling!" said the mother sadly. "They've already seized him by the throat, and he——"
Nikolay slowly dropped his hand holding the note.
"That's magnificent!" he said slowly and respectfully. "It both touches and teaches."
Ignaty looked at them, and quietly shook his bared feet with his dirty hands. The mother, covering her tearful face, walked up to him with a basin of water, sat down on the floor, and stretched out her hands to his feet. But[Pg 407] he quickly thrust them under the bench, exclaiming in fright:
"What are you going to do?"
"Give me your foot, quick!"
"I'll bring the alcohol at once," said Nikolay.
The young man shoved his foot still farther under the bench and mumbled:
"What are you going to do? It's not proper."
Then the mother silently unbared his other foot. Ignaty's round face lengthened in amazement. He looked around helplessly with his wide-open eyes.
"Why, it's going to tickle me!"
"You'll be able to bear it," answered the mother, beginning to wash his feet.
Ignaty snorted aloud, and moving his neck awkwardly looked down at her, comically drooping his under lip.
"And do you know," she said tremulously, "that they beat Mikhaïl Ivanovich?"
"What?" the peasant exclaimed in fright.
"Yes; he had been beaten when they led him to the village, and in Nikolsk the sergeant beat him, the police commissioner beat him in the face and kicked him till he bled." The mother became silent, overwhelmed by her recollections.
"They can do it," said the peasant, lowering his brows sullenly. His shoulders shook. "That is, I fear them like the devils. And the peasants—didn't the peasants beat him?"
"One beat him. The police commissioner ordered him to. All the others were so so—they even took his part. 'You mustn't beat him!' they said."
"Um! Yes, yes! The peasants are beginning to realize where a man stands, and for what he stands."[Pg 408]
"There are sensible people there, too."
"Where can't you find sensible people? Necessity! They're everywhere; but it's hard to get at them. They hide themselves in chinks and crevices, and suck their hearts out each one for himself. Their resolution isn't strong enough to make them gather into a group."
Nikolay brought a bottle of alcohol, put coals in the samovar, and walked away silently. Ignaty accompanied him with a curious look.
"In this business there are no masters; they're all comrades!"
"It's strange to me," said Ignaty with a skeptical but embarrassed smile.
"This: at one end they beat you in the face; at the other they wash your feet. Is there a middle of any kind?"
The door of the room was flung open and Nikolay, standing on the threshold, said:
"And in the middle stand the people who lick the hands of those who beat you in the face and suck the blood of those whose faces are beaten. That's the middle!"
Ignaty looked at him respectfully, and after a pause said: "That's it!"
The mother sighed. "Mikhaïl Ivanovich also always used to say, 'That's it!' like an ax blow."
"Nilovna, you're evidently tired. Permit me—I——"
The peasant pulled his feet uneasily.
"That'll do;" said the mother, rising. "Well, Ignaty, now wash yourself."
The young man arose, shifted his feet about, and stepped firmly on the floor.[Pg 409]
"They seem like new feet. Thank you! Many, many thanks!"
He drew a wry face, his lips trembled, and his eyes reddened. After a pause, during which he regarded the basin of black water, he whispered softly:
"I don't even know how to thank you!"
Then they sat down to the table to drink tea. And Ignaty soberly began:
"I was the distributer of literature, a very strong fellow at walking. Uncle Mikhaïl gave me the job. 'Distribute!' says he; 'and if you get caught you're alone.'"
"Do many people read?" asked Nikolay.
"All who can. Even some of the rich read. Of course, they don't get it from us. They'd clap us right into chains if they did! They understand that this is a slipknot for them in all ages."
"Why a slipknot?"
"What else!" exclaimed Ignaty in amazement. "Why, the peasants are themselves going to take the land from everyone else. They'll wash it out with their blood from under the gentry and the rich; that is to say, they themselves are going to divide it, and divide it so that there won't be masters or workingmen anymore. How then? What's the use of getting into a scrap if not for that?"
Ignaty even seemed to be offended. He looked at Nikolay mistrustfully and skeptically. Nikolay smiled.
"Don't get angry," said the mother jokingly.
Nikolay thoughtfully exclaimed:
"How shall we get the leaflets about Rybin's arrest to the village?" Ignaty grew attentive.
"I'll speak to Vyesovshchikov to-day."
"Is there a leaflet already?" asked Ignaty.
"Give it to me. I'll take it." Ignaty rubbed his hands at the suggestion, his eyes flashing. "I know where and how. Let me."
The mother laughed quietly, without looking at him.
"Why, you're tired and afraid, and you said you'd never go there again!"
Ignaty smacked his lips and stroked his curly hair with his broad palm.
"I'm tired; I'll rest; and of course I'm afraid!" His manner was businesslike and calm. "They beat a man until the blood comes, as you yourself say—then who wants to be mutilated? But I'll pull through somehow at night. Never mind! Give me the leaflets; this evening I'll get on the go." He was silent, thought a while, his eyebrows working. "I'll go to the forest; I'll hide the literature, and then I'll notify our fellows: 'Go get it.' That's better. If I myself should distribute them I might fall into the hands of the police, and it would be a pity for the leaflets. You must act carefully here. There are not many such leaflets!"
"And how about your fear?" the mother observed again with a smile. This curly-haired, robust fellow put her into a good humor by his sincerity, which sounded in his every word, and shone from his round, determined face.
"Fear is fear, and business is business!" he answered with a grin. "Why are you laughing at me, eh? You, too! Why, isn't it natural to be afraid in this matter? Well, and if it's necessary a man'll go into a fire. Such an affair, it requires it."
"Ah, you, my child!"
Ignaty, embarrassed, smiled. "Well, there you are—child!" he said.
Nikolay began to speak, all the time looking good-naturedly with screwed-up eyes at the young peasant.[Pg 411]
"You're not going there!"
"Then what'll I do? Where am I to be?" Ignaty asked uneasily.
"Another fellow will go in place of you. And you'll tell him in detail what to do and how to do it."
"All right!" said Ignaty. But his consent was not given at once, and then only reluctantly.
"And for you we'll obtain a good passport and make you a forester."
The young fellow quickly threw back his head and asked uneasily:
"But if the peasants come there for wood, or there—in general—what'll I do? Bind them? That doesn't suit me."
The mother laughed, and Nikolay, too. This again confused and vexed Ignaty.
"Don't be uneasy!" Nikolay soothed him. "You won't have to bind peasants. You trust us."
"Well, well," said Ignaty, set at ease, smiling at Nikolay with confidence and merriness in his eyes. "If you could get me to the factory. There, they say, the fellows are mighty smart."
A fire seemed to be ever burning in his broad chest, unsteady as yet, not confident in its own power. It flashed brightly in his eyes, forced out from within; but suddenly it would nearly expire in fright and flicker behind the smoke of perplexed alarm and embarrassment.
The mother rose from behind the table, and looking through the window reflected:
"Ah, life! Five times in the day you laugh and five times you weep. All right. Well, are you through, Ignaty? Go to bed and sleep."
"But I don't want to."
"Go on, go on!"[Pg 412]
"You're stern in this place. Thank you for the tea, for the sugar, for the kindness."
Lying down in the mother's bed he mumbled, scratching his head:
"Now everything'll smell of tar in your place. Ah, it's all for nothing all this—plain coddling! I don't want to sleep. You're good people, yes. It's more than I can understand—as if I'd gotten a hundred thousand miles away from the village—how he hit it off about the middle—and in the middle are the people who lick the hands—of those who beat the faces—um, yes."
And suddenly he gave a loud short snore and dropped off to sleep, with eyebrows raised high and half-open mouth.
Late at night he sat in a little room of a basement at a table opposite Vyesovshchikov. He said in a subdued tone, knitting his brows:
"On the middle window, four times."
"At first three times like this"—he counted aloud as he tapped thrice on the table with his forefinger. "Then waiting a little, once again."
"A red-haired peasant will open the door for you, and will ask you for the midwife. You'll tell him, 'Yes, from the boss.' Nothing else. He'll understand your business."
They sat with heads bent toward each other, both robust fellows, conversing in half tones. The mother, with her arms folded on her bosom, stood at the table looking at them. All the secret tricks and passwords compelled her to smile inwardly as she thought, "Mere children still."[Pg 413]
A lamp burned on the wall, illuminating a dark spot of dampness and pictures from journals. On the floor old pails were lying around, fragments of slate iron. A large, bright star out in the high darkness shone into the window. The odor of mildew, paint, and damp earth filled the room.
Ignaty was dressed in a thick autumn overcoat of shaggy material. It pleased him; the mother observed how he stroked it admiringly with the palm of his hand, how he looked at himself, clumsily turning his powerful neck. Her bosom beat tenderly with, "My dears, my children, my own."
"There!" said Ignaty, rising. "You'll remember, then? First you go to Muratov and ask for grandfather."
But Ignaty was still distrustful of Nikolay's memory, and reiterated all the instructions, words, and signs, and finally extended his hand to him, saying:
"That's all now. Good-by, comrade. Give my regards to them. I'm alive and strong. The people there are good—you'll see." He cast a satisfied glance down at himself, stroked the overcoat, and asked the mother, "Shall I go?"
"Can you find the way?"
"Yes. Good-by, then, dear comrades."
He walked off, raising his shoulders high, thrusting out his chest, with his new hat cocked to one side, and his hands deep in his pockets in most dignified fashion. On his forehead and temples his bright, boyish curls danced gayly.
"There, now, I have work, too," said Vyesovshchikov, going over to the mother quietly. "I'm bored already—jumped out of prison—what for? My only occupation is hiding—and there I was learning. Pavel so pressed your[Pg 414] brains—it was one pure delight. And Andrey, too, polished us fellows zealously. Well, Nilovna, did you hear how they decided in regard to the escape? Will they arrange it?"
"They'll find out day after to-morrow," she repeated, sighing involuntarily. "One day still—day after to-morrow."
Laying his heavy hand on her shoulder, and bringing his face close to hers, Nikolay said animatedly:
"You tell them, the older ones there—they'll listen to you. Why, it's very easy. You just see for yourself. There's the wall of the prison near the lamp-post; opposite is an empty lot, on the left the cemetery, on the right the streets—the city. The lamplighter goes to the lamp-post; by day he cleans the lamp; he puts the ladder against the wall, climbs up, screws hooks for a rope ladder onto the top of the wall, lets the rope ladder down into the prison yard, and off he goes. There inside the walls they know the time when this will be done, and will ask the criminals to arrange an uproar, or they'll arrange it themselves, and those who need it will go up the ladder over the wall—one, two, it's done. And they calmly proceed to the city because the chase throws itself first of all on the vacant lot and the cemetery."
He gesticulated rapidly in front of the mother's face, drawing his plan, the details of which were clear, simple, and clever. She had known him as a clumsy fellow, and it was strange to her to see the pockmarked face with the high cheek bones, usually so gloomy, now lively and alert. The narrow gray eyes, formerly harsh and cold, looking at the world sullenly with malice and distrust, seemed to be chiseled anew, assuming an oval form and shining with an even, warm light that convinced and moved the mother.[Pg 415]
"You think of it—by day, without fail by day. To whom would it occur that a prisoner would make up his mind to escape by day in the eyes of the whole prison?"
"And they'll shoot him down," the woman said trembling.
"Who? There are no soldiers, and the overseers of the prison use their revolvers to drive nails in."
"Why, it's very simple—all this."
"And you'll see it'll all come out all right. No. You speak to them. I have everything prepared already—the rope ladder, the screw hooks; I spoke to my host, he'll be the lamplighter."
Somebody stirred noisily at the door and coughed, and iron clanked.
"There he is!" exclaimed Nikolay.
At the open door a tin bathtub was thrust in, and a hoarse voice said:
"Get in, you devil."
Then a round, gray, hatless head appeared. It had protruding eyes and a mustache, and wore a good-natured expression. Nikolay helped the man in with the tub. A tall, stooping figure strode through the door. The man coughed, his shaven cheeks puffing up; he spat out and greeted hoarsely:
"Good health to you!"
"There! Ask him!"
"Me? What about?"
"About the escape."
"Ah, ah!" said the host, wiping his mustache with black fingers.
"There, Yakob Vasilyevich! She doesn't believe it's a simple matter!"
"Hm! she doesn't believe! Not to believe means not to want to believe. You and I want to, and so we[Pg 416] believe." The old man suddenly bent over and coughed hoarsely, rubbed his breast for a long time, while he stood in the middle of the room panting for breath and scanning the mother with wide-open eyes.
"I'm not the one to decide, Nikolay."
"But, mother, you talk with them. Tell them everything is ready. Ah, if I could only see them! I'd force them!" He threw out his hands with a broad gesture and pressed them together as if embracing something firmly, and his voice rang with hot feeling that astounded the mother by its power.
"Hm! what a fellow you are!" she thought; but said aloud: "It's for Pasha and the comrades to decide."
Nikolay thoughtfully inclined his head.
"Who's this Pasha?" asked the host, seating himself.
"What's the family?"
He nodded his head, got his tobacco pouch, whipped out his pipe and filled it with tobacco. He spoke brokenly:
"I've heard of him. My nephew knows him. He, too, is in prison—my nephew Yevchenko. Have you heard of him? And my family is Godun. They'll soon shut all the young people in prison, and then there'll be plenty and comfort for us old folks. The gendarme assures me that my nephew will even be sent to Siberia. They'll exile him—the dogs!"
Lighting his pipe, he turned to Nikolay, spitting frequently on the floor:
"So she doesn't want to? Well, that's her affair! A person is free to feel as he wants to. Are you tired of sitting in prison? Go. Are you tired of going? Sit. They robbed you? Keep still. They beat you? Bear it.[Pg 417] They have killed you? Stay dead. That's certain. And I'll carry off Savka; I'll carry him off!" His curt, barking phrases, full of good-natured irony, perplexed the mother. But his last words aroused envy in her.
While walking along the street in the face of a cold wind and rain, she thought of Nikolay, "What a man he's become! Think of it!" And remembering Godun, she almost prayerfully reflected, "It seems I'm not the only one who lives for the new. It's a big fire if it so cleanses and burns all who see it." Then she thought of her son, "If he only agreed!"
On Sunday, taking leave of Pavel in the waiting room of the prison, she felt a little lump of paper in her hand. She started as if it burned her skin, and cast a look of question and entreaty into her son's face. But she found no answer there. Pavel's blue eyes smiled with the usual composed smile familiar to her.
"Good-by!" she sighed.
The son again put out his hand to her, and a certain kindness and tenderness for her quivered on his face. "Good-by, mamma!"
She waited without letting go of his hand. "Don't be uneasy—don't be angry," he said.
These words and the stubborn folds between his brows answered her question. "Well, what do you mean?" she muttered, drooping her head. "What of it?" And she quickly walked away without looking at him, in order not to betray her feelings by the tears in her eyes and the quiver of her lips. On the road she thought that the bones of the hand which had pressed her son's hand ached and grew heavy, as if she had been struck on the shoulder.
At home, after thrusting the note into Nikolay's hand, she stood before him, and waited while he smoothed out[Pg 418] the tight little roll. She felt a tremor of hope again; but Nikolay said:
"Of course, this is what he writes: 'We will not go away, comrade; we cannot, not one of us. We should lose respect for ourselves. Take into consideration the peasant recently arrested. He has merited your solicitude; he deserves that you expend much time and energy on him. It's very hard for him here—daily collisions with the authorities. He's already had the twenty-four hours of the dark cell. They torture him to death. We all intercede for him. Soothe and be kind to my mother; tell her; she'll understand all. Pavel.'"
The mother straightened herself easily, and proudly tossed her head.
"Well, what is there to tell me?" she said firmly. "I understand—they want to go straight at the authorities again—'there! condemn the truth!'"
Nikolay quickly turned aside, took out his handkerchief, blew his nose aloud, and mumbled: "I've caught a cold, you see!" Covering his eyes with his hands, under the pretext of adjusting his glasses, he paced up and down the room, and said: "We shouldn't have been successful anyway."
"Never mind; let the trial come off!" said the mother frowning.
"Here, I've received a letter from a comrade in St. Petersburg——"
"He can escape from Siberia, too, can't he?"
"Of course! The comrade writes: 'The trial is appointed for the near future; the sentence is certain—exile for everybody!' You see, these petty cheats convert their court into the most trivial comedy. You understand? Sentence is pronounced in St. Petersburg before the trial."[Pg 419]
"Stop!" the mother said resolutely. "You needn't comfort me or explain to me. Pasha won't do what isn't right—he won't torture himself for nothing." She paused to catch breath. "Nor will he torture others, and he loves me, yes. You see, he thinks of me. 'Explain to her,' he writes; 'soothe her and comfort her,' eh?"
Her heart beat quickly but boldly, and her head whirled slightly from excitement.
"Your son's a splendid man! I respect and love him very much."
"I tell you what—let's think of something in regard to Rybin," she suggested.
She wanted to do something forthwith—go somewhere, walk till she dropped from exhaustion, and then fall asleep, content with the day's work.
"Yes—very well!" said Nikolay, pacing through the room. "Why not? We ought to have Sashenka here!"
"She'll be here soon. She always comes on my visiting day to Pasha."
Thoughtfully drooping his head, biting his lips and twisting his beard, Nikolay sat on the sofa by the mother's side.
"I'm sorry my sister isn't here. She ought to occupy herself with Rybin's case."
"It would be well to arrange it at once, while Pasha is there. It would be pleasant for him."
The bell rang. They looked at each other.
"That's Sasha," Nikolay whispered.
"How will you tell her?" the mother whispered back.
"I pity her very much."
The bell rang again, not so loud, as if the person on the other side of the door had also fallen to thinking and[Pg 420] hesitated. Nikolay and the mother rose simultaneously, but at the kitchen door Nikolay turned aside.
"You'd better do it," he said.
"He's not willing?" the girl asked the moment the mother opened the door.
"I knew it!" Sasha's face paled. She unbuttoned her coat, fastened two buttons again, then tried to remove her coat, unsuccessfully, of course. "Dreadful weather—rain, wind; it's disgusting! Is he well?"
"Well and happy; always the same, and only this—" Her tone was disconsolate, and she regarded her hands.
"He writes that Rybin ought to be freed." The mother kept her eyes turned from the girl.
"Yes? It seems to me we ought to make use of this plan."
"I think so, too," said Nikolay, appearing at the door. "How do you do, Sasha?"
The girl asked, extending her hand to him:
"What's the question about? Aren't all agreed that the plan is practicable? I know they are."
"And who'll organize it? Everybody's occupied."
"Give it to me," said Sasha, quickly jumping to her feet. "I have time!"
"Take it. But you must ask others."
"Very well, I will. I'll go at once."
She began to button up her coat again with sure, thin fingers.
"You ought to rest a little," the mother advised.
Sasha smiled and answered in a softer voice:
"Don't worry about me. I'm not tired." And silently pressing their hands, she left once more, cold and stern.