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Every day the factory whistle bellowed forth its shrill, roaring, trembling noises into the smoke-begrimed and greasy atmosphere of the workingmen’s suburb; and obedient to the summons of the power of steam, people poured out of little gray houses into the street. With somber faces they hastened forward like frightened roaches, their muscles stiff from insufficient sleep. In the chill morning twilight they walked through the narrow, unpaved street to the tall stone cage that waited for them with cold assurance, illumining their muddy road with scores of greasy, yellow, square eyes. The mud plashed under their feet as if in mocking commiseration. Hoarse exclamations of sleepy voices were heard; irritated, peevish, abusive language rent the air with malice; and, to welcome the people, deafening sounds floated about — the heavy whir of machinery, the dissatisfied snort of steam. Stern and somber, the black chimneys stretched their huge, thick sticks high above the village.
In the evening, when the sun was setting, and red rays languidly glimmered upon the windows of the houses, the factory ejected its people like burned-out ashes, and again they walked through the streets, with black, smoke-covered faces, radiating the sticky odor of machine oil, and showing the gleam of hungry teeth. But now there was animation in their voices, and even gladness. The servitude of hard toil was over for the day. Supper awaited them at home, and respite.
The day was swallowed up by the factory; the machine sucked out of men’s muscles as much vigor as it needed. The day was blotted out from life, not a trace of it left. Man made another imperceptible step toward his grave; but he saw close before him the delights of rest, the joys of the odorous tavern, and he was satisfied.
On holidays the workers slept until about ten o’clock. Then the staid and married people dressed themselves in their best clothes and, after duly scolding the young folks for their indifference to church, went to hear mass. When they returned from church, they ate pirogs, the Russian national pastry, and again lay down to sleep until the evening. The accumulated exhaustion of years had robbed them of their appetites, and to be able to eat they drank, long and deep, goading on their feeble stomachs with the biting, burning lash of vodka.
In the evening they amused themselves idly on the street; and those who had overshoes put them on, even if it was dry, and those who had umbrellas carried them, even if the sun was shining. Not everybody has overshoes and an umbrella, but everybody desires in some way, however small, to appear more important than his neighbor.
Meeting one another they spoke about the factory and the machines, had their fling against their foreman, conversed and thought only of matters closely and manifestly connected with their work. Only rarely, and then but faintly, did solitary sparks of impotent thought glimmer in the wearisome monotony of their talk. Returning home they quarreled with their wives, and often beat them, unsparing of their fists. The young people sat in the taverns, or enjoyed evening parties at one another’s houses, played the accordion, sang vulgar songs devoid of beauty, danced, talked ribaldry, and drank.
Exhausted with toil, men drank swiftly, and in every heart there awoke and grew an incomprehensible, sickly irritation. It demanded an outlet. Clutching tenaciously at every pretext for unloading themselves of this disquieting sensation, they fell on one another for mere trifles, with the spiteful ferocity of beasts, breaking into bloody quarrels which sometimes ended in serious injury and on rare occasions even in murder.
This lurking malice steadily increased, inveterate as the incurable weariness in their muscles. They were born with this disease of the soul inherited from their fathers. Like a black shadow it accompanied them to their graves, spurring on their lives to crime, hideous in its aimless cruelty and brutality.
On holidays the young people came home late at night, dirty and dusty, their clothes torn, their faces bruised, boasting maliciously of the blows they had struck their companions, or the insults they had inflicted upon them; enraged or in tears over the indignities they themselves had suffered; drunken and piteous, unfortunate and repulsive. Sometimes the boys would be brought home by the mother or the father, who had picked them up in the street or in a tavern, drunk to insensibility. The parents scolded and swore at them peevishly, and beat their spongelike bodies, soaked with liquor; then more or less systematically put them to bed, in order to rouse them to work early next morning, when the bellow of the whistle should sullenly course through the air.
They scolded and beat the children soundly, notwithstanding the fact that drunkenness and brawls among young folk appeared perfectly legitimate to the old people. When they were young they, too, had drunk and fought; they, too, had been beaten by their mothers and fathers. Life had always been like that. It flowed on monotonously and slowly somewhere down the muddy, turbid stream, year after year; and it was all bound up in strong ancient customs and habits that led them to do one and the same thing day in and day out. None of them, it seemed, had either the time or the desire to attempt to change this state of life.
Once in a long while a stranger would come to the village. At first he attracted attention merely because he was a stranger. Then he aroused a light, superficial interest by the stories of the places where he had worked. Afterwards the novelty wore off, the people got used to him, and he remained unnoticed. From his stories it was clear that the life of the workingmen was the same everywhere. And if so, then what was there to talk about?
Occasionally, however, some stranger spoke curious things never heard of in the suburb. The men did not argue with him, but listened to his odd speeches with incredulity. His words aroused blind irritation in some, perplexed alarm in others, while still others were disturbed by a feeble, shadowy glimmer of the hope of something, they knew not what. And they all began to drink more in order to drive away the unnecessary, meddlesome excitement.
Noticing in the stranger something unusual, the villagers cherished it long against him and treated the man who was not like them with unaccountable apprehension. It was as if they feared he would throw something into their life which would disturb its straight, dismal course. Sad and difficult, it was yet even in its tenor. People were accustomed to the fact that life always oppressed them with the same power. Unhopeful of any turn for the better, they regarded every change as capable only of increasing their burden.
And the workingmen of the suburb tacitly avoided people who spoke unusual things to them. Then these people disappeared again, going off elsewhere, and those who remained in the factory lived apart, if they could not blend and make one whole with the monotonous mass in the village.
Living a life like that for some fifty years, a workman died.
Thus also lived Michael Vlasov, a gloomy, sullen man, with little eyes which looked at everybody from under his thick eyebrows suspiciously, with a mistrustful, evil smile. He was the best locksmith in the factory, and the strongest man in the village. But he was insolent and disrespectful toward the foreman and the superintendent, and therefore earned little; every holiday he beat somebody, and everyone disliked and feared him.
More than one attempt was made to beat him in turn, but without success. When Vlasov found himself threatened with attack, he caught a stone in his hand, or a piece of wood or iron, and spreading out his legs stood waiting in silence for the enemy. His face overgrown with a dark beard from his eyes to his neck, and his hands thickly covered with woolly hair, inspired everybody with fear. People were especially afraid of his eyes. Small and keen, they seemed to bore through a man like steel gimlets, and everyone who met their gaze felt he was confronting a beast, a savage power, inaccessible to fear, ready to strike unmercifully.
“Well, pack off, dirty vermin!” he said gruffly. His coarse, yellow teeth glistened terribly through the thick hair on his face. The men walked off uttering coward abuse.
“Dirty vermin!” he snapped at them, and his eyes gleamed with a smile sharp as an awl. Then holding his head in an attitude of direct challenge, with a short, thick pipe between his teeth, he walked behind them, and now and then called out: “Well, who wants death?”
No one wanted it.
He spoke little, and “dirty vermin” was his favorite expression. It was the name he used for the authorities of the factory, and the police, and it was the epithet with which he addressed his wife: “Look, you dirty vermin, don’t you see my clothes are torn?”
When Pavel, his son, was a boy of fourteen, Vlasov was one day seized with the desire to pull him by the hair once more. But Pavel grasped a heavy hammer, and said curtly:
“Don’t touch me!”
“What!” demanded his father, bending over the tall, slender figure of his son like a shadow on a birch tree.
“Enough!” said Pavel. “I am not going to give myself up any more.”
And opening his dark eyes wide, he waved the hammer in the air.
His father looked at him, folded his shaggy hands on his back, and, smiling, said:
“All right.” Then he drew a heavy breath and added: “Ah, you dirty vermin!”
Shortly after this he said to his wife:
“Don’t ask me for money any more. Pasha will feed you now.”
“And you will drink up everything?” she ventured to ask.
“None of your business, dirty vermin!” From that time, for three years, until his death, he did not notice, and did not speak to his son.
Vlasov had a dog as big and shaggy as himself. She accompanied him to the factory every morning, and every evening she waited for him at the gate. On holidays Vlasov started off on his round of the taverns. He walked in silence, and stared into people’s faces as if looking for somebody. His dog trotted after him the whole day long. Returning home drunk he sat down to supper, and gave his dog to eat from his own bowl. He never beat her, never scolded, and never petted her. After supper he flung the dishes from the table — if his wife was not quick enough to remove them in time — put a bottle of whisky before him, and leaning his back against the wall, began in a hoarse voice that spread anguish about him to bawl a song, his mouth wide open and his eyes closed. The doleful sounds got entangled in his mustache, knocking off the crumbs of bread. He smoothed down the hair of his beard and mustache with his thick fingers and sang — sang unintelligible words, long drawn out. The melody recalled the wintry howl of wolves. He sang as long as there was whisky in the bottle, then he dropped on his side upon the bench, or let his head sink on the table, and slept in this way until the whistle began to blow. The dog lay at his side.
When he died, he died hard. For five days, turned all black, he rolled in his bed, gnashing his teeth, his eyes tightly closed. Sometimes he would say to his wife: “Give me arsenic. Poison me.”
She called a physician. He ordered hot poultices, but said an operation was necessary and the patient must be taken at once to the hospital.
“Go to the devil! I will die by myself, dirty vermin!” said Michael.
And when the physician had left, and his wife with tears in her eyes began to insist on an operation, he clenched his fists and announced threateningly:
“Don’t you dare! It will be worse for you if I get well.”
He died in the morning at the moment when the whistle called the men to work. He lay in the coffin with open mouth, his eyebrows knit as if in a scowl. He was buried by his wife, his son, the dog, an old drunkard and thief, Daniel Vyesovshchikov, a discharged smelter, and a few beggars of the suburb. His wife wept a little and quietly; Pavel did not weep at all. The villagers who met the funeral in the street stopped, crossed themselves, and said to one another: “Guess Pelagueya is glad he died!” And some corrected: “He didn’t die; he rotted away like a beast.”
When the body was put in the ground, the people went away, but the dog remained for a long time, and sitting silently on the fresh soil, she sniffed at the grave.
Two weeks after the death of his father, on a Sunday, Pavel came home very drunk. Staggering he crawled to a corner in the front of the room, and striking his fist on the table as his father used to do, shouted to his mother:
The mother walked up to him, sat down at his side, and with her arm around her son, drew his head upon her breast. With his hand on her shoulder he pushed her away and shouted:
“You foolish boy!” said the mother in a sad and affectionate voice, trying to overcome his resistance.
“I am going to smoke, too. Give me father’s pipe,” mumbled Pavel indistinctly, wagging his tongue heavily.
It was the first time he had been drunk. The alcohol weakened his body, but it did not quench his consciousness, and the question knocked at his brain: “Drunk? Drunk?”
The fondling of his mother troubled him, and he was touched by the sadness in her eyes. He wanted to weep, and in order to overcome this desire he endeavored to appear more drunk than he actually was.
The mother stroked his tangled hair, and said in a low voice:
“Why did you do it? You oughtn’t to have done it.”
He began to feel sick, and after a violent attack of nausea the mother put him to bed, and laid a wet towel over his pale forehead. He sobered a little, but under and around him everything seemed to be rocking; his eyelids grew heavy; he felt a bad, sour taste in his mouth; he looked through his eyelashes on his mother’s large face, and thought disjointedly:
“It seems it’s too early for me. Others drink and nothing happens — and I feel sick.”
Somewhere from a distance came the mother’s soft voice:
“What sort of a breadgiver will you be to me if you begin to drink?”
He shut his eyes tightly and answered:
The mother sighed. He was right. She herself knew that besides the tavern there was no place where people could enjoy themselves; besides the taste of whisky there was no other gratification. Nevertheless she said:
“But don’t you drink. Your father drank for both of you. And he made enough misery for me. Take pity on your mother, then, will you not?”
Listening to the soft, pitiful words of his mother, Pavel remembered that in his father’s lifetime she had remained unnoticed in the house. She had been silent and had always lived in anxious expectation of blows. Desiring to avoid his father, he had been home very little of late; he had become almost unaccustomed to his mother, and now, as he gradually sobered up, he looked at her fixedly.
She was tall and somewhat stooping. Her heavy body, broken down with long years of toil and the beatings of her husband, moved about noiselessly and inclined to one side, as if she were in constant fear of knocking up against something. Her broad oval face, wrinkled and puffy, was lighted up with a pair of dark eyes, troubled and melancholy as those of most of the women in the village. On her right eyebrow was a deep scar, which turned the eyebrow upward a little; her right ear, too, seemed to be higher than the left, which gave her face the appearance of alarmed listening. Gray locks glistened in her thick, dark hair, like the imprints of heavy blows. Altogether she was soft, melancholy, and submissive.
Tears slowly trickled down her cheeks.
“Wait, don’t cry!” begged the son in a soft voice. “Give me a drink.”
She rose and said:
“I’ll give you some ice water.”
But when she returned he was already asleep. She stood over him for a minute, trying to breathe lightly. The cup in her hand trembled, and the ice knocked against the tin. Then, setting the cup on the table, she knelt before the sacred image upon the wall, and began to pray in silence. The sounds of dark, drunken life beat against the window panes; an accordion screeched in the misty darkness of the autumn night; some one sang a loud song; some one was swearing with ugly, vile oaths, and the excited sounds of women’s irritated, weary voices cut the air.
Life in the little house of the Vlasovs flowed on monotonously, but more calmly and undisturbed than before, and somewhat different from everywhere else in the suburb.
The house stood at the edge of the village, by a low but steep and muddy declivity. A third of the house was occupied by the kitchen and a small room used for the mother’s bedroom, separated from the kitchen by a partition reaching partially to the ceiling. The other two thirds formed a square room with two windows. In one corner stood Pavel’s bed, in front a table and two benches. Some chairs, a washstand with a small looking-glass over it, a trunk with clothes, a clock on the wall, and two ikons — this was the entire outfit of the household.
Pavel tried to live like the rest. He did all a young lad should do — bought himself an accordion, a shirt with a starched front, a loud-colored necktie, overshoes, and a cane. Externally he became like all the other youths of his age. He went to evening parties and learned to dance a quadrille and a polka. On holidays he came home drunk, and always suffered greatly from the effects of liquor. In the morning his head ached, he was tormented by heartburns, his face was pale and dull.
Once his mother asked him:
“Well, did you have a good time yesterday?”
He answered dismally and with irritation:
“Oh, dreary as a graveyard! Everybody is like a machine. I’d better go fishing or buy myself a gun.”
He worked faithfully, without intermission and without incurring fines. He was taciturn, and his eyes, blue and large like his mother’s, looked out discontentedly. He did not buy a gun, nor did he go a-fishing; but he gradually began to avoid the beaten path trodden by all. His attendance at parties became less and less frequent, and although he went out somewhere on holidays, he always returned home sober. His mother watched him unobtrusively but closely, and saw the tawny face of her son grow keener and keener, and his eyes more serious. She noticed that his lips were compressed in a peculiar manner, imparting an odd expression of austerity to his face. It seemed as if he were always angry at something or as if a canker gnawed at him. At first his friends came to visit him, but never finding him at home, they remained away.
The mother was glad to see her son turning out different from all the other factory youth; but a feeling of anxiety and apprehension stirred in her heart when she observed that he was obstinately and resolutely directing his life into obscure paths leading away from the routine existence about him — that he turned in his career neither to the right nor the left.
He began to bring books home with him. At first he tried to escape attention when reading them; and after he had finished a book, he hid it. Sometimes he copied a passage on a piece of paper, and hid that also.
“Aren’t you well, Pavlusha?” the mother asked once.
“I’m all right,” he answered.
“You are so thin,” said the mother with a sigh.
He was silent.
They spoke infrequently, and saw each other very little. In the morning he drank tea in silence, and went off to work; at noon he came for dinner, a few insignificant remarks were passed at the table, and he again disappeared until the evening. And in the evening, the day’s work ended, he washed himself, took supper, and then fell to his books, and read for a long time. On holidays he left home in the morning and returned late at night. She knew he went to the city and the theater; but nobody from the city ever came to visit him. It seemed to her that with the lapse of time her son spoke less and less; and at the same time she noticed that occasionally and with increasing frequency he used new words unintelligible to her, and that the coarse, rude, and hard expressions dropped from his speech. In his general conduct, also, certain traits appeared, forcing themselves upon his mother’s attention. He ceased to affect the dandy, but became more attentive to the cleanliness of his body and dress, and moved more freely and alertly. The increasing softness and simplicity of his manner aroused a disquieting interest in his mother.
Once he brought a picture and hung it on the wall. It represented three persons walking lightly and boldly, and conversing.
“This is Christ risen from the dead, and going to Emmaus,” explained Pavel.
The mother liked the picture, but she thought:
“You respect Christ, and yet you do not go to church.”
Then more pictures appeared on the walls, and the number of books increased on the shelves neatly made for him by one of his carpenter friends. The room began to look like a home.
He addressed his mother with the reverential plural “you,” and called her “mother” instead of “mamma.” But sometimes he turned to her suddenly, and briefly used the simple and familiar form of the singular: “Mamma, please be not thou disturbed if I come home late to-night.”
This pleased her; in such words she felt something serious and strong.
But her uneasiness increased. Since her son’s strangeness was not clarified with time, her heart became more and more sharply troubled with a foreboding of something unusual. Every now and then she felt a certain dissatisfaction with him, and she thought: “All people are like people, and he is like a monk. He is so stern. It’s not according to his years.” At other times she thought: “Maybe he has become interested in some of a girl down there.”
But to go about with girls, money is needed, and he gave almost all his earnings to her.
Thus weeks and months elapsed; and imperceptibly two years slipped by, two years of a strange, silent life, full of disquieting thoughts and anxieties that kept continually increasing.
Once, when after supper Pavel drew the curtain over the window, sat down in a corner, and began to read, his tin lamp hanging on the wall over his head, the mother, after removing the dishes, came out from the kitchen and carefully walked up to him. He raised his head, and without speaking looked at her with a questioning expression.
“Nothing, Pasha, just so!” she said hastily, and walked away, moving her eyebrows agitatedly. But after standing in the kitchen for a moment, motionless, thoughtful, deeply preoccupied, she washed her hands and approached her son again.
“I want to ask you,” she said in a low, soft voice, “what you read all the time.”
He put his book aside and said to her: “Sit down, mother.”
The mother sat down heavily at his side, and straightening herself into an attitude of intense, painful expectation waited for something momentous.
Without looking at her, Pavel spoke, not loudly, but for some reason very sternly:
“I am reading forbidden books. They are forbidden to be read because they tell the truth about our — about the workingmen’s life. They are printed in secret, and if I am found with them I will be put in prison — I will be put in prison because I want to know the truth.”
Breathing suddenly became difficult for her. Opening her eyes wide she looked at her son, and he seemed to her new, as if a stranger. His voice was different, lower, deeper, more sonorous. He pinched his thin, downy mustache, and looked oddly askance into the corner. She grew anxious for her son and pitied him.
“Why do you do this, Pasha?”
He raised his head, looked at her, and said in a low, calm voice:
“I want to know the truth.”
His voice sounded placid, but firm; and his eyes flashed resolution. She understood with her heart that her son had consecrated himself forever to something mysterious and awful. Everything in life had always appeared to her inevitable; she was accustomed to submit without thought, and now, too, she only wept softly, finding no words, but in her heart she was oppressed with sorrow and distress.
“Don’t cry,” said Pavel, kindly and softly; and it seemed to her that he was bidding her farewell.
“Think what kind of a life you are leading. You are forty years old, and have you lived? Father beat you. I understand now that he avenged his wretchedness on your body, the wretchedness of his life. It pressed upon him, and he did not know whence it came. He worked for thirty years; he began to work when the whole factory occupied but two buildings; now there are seven of them. The mills grow, and people die, working for them.”
She listened to him eagerly and awestruck. His eyes burned with a beautiful radiance. Leaning forward on the table he moved nearer to his mother, and looking straight into her face, wet with tears, he delivered his first speech to her about the truth which he had now come to understand. With the naivete of youth, and the ardor of a young student proud of his knowledge, religiously confiding in its truth, he spoke about everything that was clear to him, and spoke not so much for his mother as to verify and strengthen his own opinions. At times he halted, finding no words, and then he saw before him a disturbed face, in which dimly shone a pair of kind eyes clouded with tears. They looked on with awe and perplexity. He was sorry for his mother, and began to speak again, about herself and her life.
“What joys did you know?” he asked. “What sort of a past can you recall?”
She listened and shook her head dolefully, feeling something new, unknown to her, both sorrowful and gladsome, like a caress to her troubled and aching heart. It was the first time she had heard such language about herself, her own life. It awakened in her misty, dim thoughts, long dormant; gently roused an almost extinct feeling of rebellion, perplexed dissatisfaction — thoughts and feelings of a remote youth. She often discussed life with her neighbors, spoke a great deal about everything; but all, herself included, only complained; no one explained why life was so hard and burdensome.
And now her son sat before her; and what he said about her — his eyes, his face, his words — it all clutched at her heart, filling her with a sense of pride for her son, who truly understood the life of his mother, and spoke the truth about her and her sufferings, and pitied her.
Mothers are not pitied. She knew it. She did not understand Pavel when speaking about matters not pertaining to herself, but all he said about her own woman’s existence was bitterly familiar and true. Hence it seemed to her that every word of his was perfectly true, and her bosom throbbed with a gentle sensation which warmed it more and more with an unknown, kindly caress.
“What do you want to do, then?” she asked, interrupting his speech.
“Study and then teach others. We workingmen must study. We must learn, we must understand why life is so hard for us.”
It was sweet to her to see that his blue eyes, always so serious and stern, now glowed with warmth, softly illuminating something new within him. A soft, contented smile played around her lips, although the tears still trembled in the wrinkles of her face. She wavered between two feelings: pride in her son who desired the good of all people, had pity for all, and understood the sorrow and affliction of life; and the involuntary regret for his youth, because he did not speak like everybody else, because he resolved to enter alone into a fight against the life to which all, including herself, were accustomed.
She wanted to say to him: “My dear, what can you do? People will crush you. You will perish.”
But it was pleasant to her to listen to his speeches, and she feared to disturb her delight in her son, who suddenly revealed himself so new and wise, even if somewhat strange.
Pavel saw the smile around his mother’s lips, the attention in her face, the love in her eyes; and it seemed to him that he compelled her to understand his truth; and youthful pride in the power of his word heightened his faith in himself. Seized with enthusiasm, he continued to talk, now smiling, now frowning. Occasionally hatred sounded in his words; and when his mother heard its bitter, harsh accents she shook her head, frightened, and asked in a low voice:
“Is it so, Pasha?”
“It is so!” he answered firmly. And he told her about people who wanted the good of men, and who sowed truth among them; and because of this the enemies of life hunted them down like beasts, thrust them into prisons, and exiled them, and set them to hard labor.
“I have seen such people!” he exclaimed passionately. “They are the best people on earth!”
These people filled the mother with terror, and she wanted to ask her son: “Is it so, Pasha?”
But she hesitated, and leaning back she listened to the stories of people incomprehensible to her, who taught her son to speak and think words and thoughts so dangerous to him. Finally she said:
“It will soon be daylight. You ought to go to bed. You’ve got to go to work.”
“Yes, I’ll go to bed at once,” he assented. “Did you understand me?”
“I did,” she said, drawing a deep breath. Tears rolled down from her eyes again, and breaking into sobs she added: “You will perish, my son!”
Pavel walked up and down the room.
“Well, now you know what I am doing and where I am going. I told you all. I beg of you, mother, if you love me, do not hinder me!”
“My darling, my beloved!” she cried, “maybe it would be better for me not to have known anything!”
He took her hand and pressed it firmly in his. The word “mother,” pronounced by him with feverish emphasis, and that clasp of the hand so new and strange, moved her.
“I will do nothing!” she said in a broken voice. “Only be on your guard! Be on your guard!” Not knowing what he should be on his guard against, nor how to warn him, she added mournfully: “You are getting so thin.”
And with a look of affectionate warmth, which seemed to embrace his firm, well-shaped body, she said hastily, and in a low voice:
“God be with you! Live as you want to. I will not hinder you. One thing only I beg of you — do not speak to people unguardedly! You must be on the watch with people; they all hate one another. They live in greed and envy; all are glad to do injury; people persecute out of sheer amusement. When you begin to accuse them and to judge them, they will hate you, and will hound you to destruction!”
Pavel stood in the doorway listening to the melancholy speech, and when the mother had finished he said with a smile:
“Yes, people are sorry creatures; but when I came to recognize that there is truth in the world, people became better.” He smiled again and added: “I do not know how it happened myself! From childhood I feared everybody; as I grew up I began to hate everybody, some for their meanness, others — well, I do not know why — just so! And now I see all the people in a different way. I am grieved for them all! I cannot understand it; but my heart turned softer when I recognized that there is truth in men, and that not all are to blame for their foulness and filth.”
He was silent as if listening to something within himself. Then he said in a low voice and thoughtfully:
“That’s how truth lives.”
She looked at him tenderly.
“May God protect you!” she sighed. “It is a dangerous change that has come upon you.”
When he had fallen asleep, the mother rose carefully from her bed and came gently into her son’s room. Pavel’s swarthy, resolute, stern face was clearly outlined against the white pillow. Pressing her hand to her bosom, the mother stood at his bedside. Her lips moved mutely, and great tears rolled down her cheeks.
Again they lived in silence, distant and yet near to each other. Once, in the middle of the week, on a holiday, as he was preparing to leave the house he said to his mother:
“I expect some people here on Saturday.”
“What people?” she asked.
“Some people from our village, and others from the city.”
“From the city?” repeated the mother, shaking her head. And suddenly she broke into sobs.
“Now, mother, why this?” cried Pavel resentfully. “What for?”
Drying her face with her apron, she answered quietly:
“I don’t know, but it is the way I feel.”
He paced up and down the room, then halting before her, said:
“Are you afraid?”
“I am afraid,” she acknowledged. “Those people from the city — who knows them?”
He bent down to look in her face, and said in an offended tone, and, it seemed to her, angrily, like his father:
“This fear is what is the ruin of us all. And some dominate us; they take advantage of our fear and frighten us still more. Mark this: as long as people are afraid, they will rot like the birches in the marsh. We must grow bold; it is time!
“It’s all the same,” he said, as he turned from her; “they’ll meet in my house, anyway.”
“Don’t be angry with me!” the mother begged sadly. “How can I help being afraid? All my life I have lived in fear!”
“Forgive me!” was his gentler reply, “but I cannot do otherwise,” and he walked away.
For three days her heart was in a tremble, sinking in fright each time she remembered that strange people were soon to come to her house. She could not picture them to herself, but it seemed to her they were terrible people. It was they who had shown her son the road he was going.
On Saturday night Pavel came from the factory, washed himself, put on clean clothes, and when walking out of the house said to his mother without looking at her:
“When they come, tell them I’ll be back soon. Let them wait a while. And please don’t be afraid. They are people like all other people.”
She sank into her seat almost fainting.
Her son looked at her soberly. “Maybe you’d better go away somewhere,” he suggested.
The thought offended her. Shaking her head in dissent, she said:
“No, it’s all the same. What for?”
It was the end of November. During the day a dry, fine snow had fallen upon the frozen earth, and now she heard it crunching outside the window under her son’s feet as he walked away. A dense crust of darkness settled immovably upon the window panes, and seemed to lie in hostile watch for something. Supporting herself on the bench, the mother sat and waited, looking at the door.
It seemed to her that people were stealthily and watchfully walking about the house in the darkness, stooping and looking about on all sides, strangely attired and silent. There around the house some one was already coming, fumbling with his hands along the wall.
A whistle was heard. It circled around like the notes of a fine chord, sad and melodious, wandered musingly into the wilderness of darkness, and seemed to be searching for something. It came nearer. Suddenly it died away under the window, as if it had entered into the wood of the wall. The noise of feet was heard on the porch. The mother started, and rose with a strained, frightened look in her eyes.
The door opened. At first a head with a big, shaggy hat thrust itself into the room; then a slender, bending body crawled in, straightened itself out, and deliberately raised its right hand.
“Good evening!” said the man, in a thick, bass voice, breathing heavily.
The mother bowed in silence.
“Pavel is not at home yet?”
The stranger leisurely removed his short fur jacket, raised one foot, whipped the snow from his boot with his hat, then did the same with the other foot, flung his hat into a corner, and rocking on his thin legs walked into the room, looking back at the imprints he left on the floor. He approached the table, examined it as if to satisfy himself of its solidity, and finally sat down and, covering his mouth with his hand, yawned. His head was perfectly round and close-cropped, his face shaven except for a thin mustache, the ends of which pointed downward.
After carefully scrutinizing the room with his large, gray, protuberant eyes, he crossed his legs, and, leaning his head over the table, inquired:
“Is this your own house, or do you rent it?”
The mother, sitting opposite him, answered:
“We rent it.”
“Not a very fine house,” he remarked.
“Pasha will soon be here; wait,” said the mother quietly.
“Why, yes, I am waiting,” said the man.
His calmness, his deep, sympathetic voice, and the candor and simplicity of his face encouraged the mother. He looked at her openly and kindly, and a merry sparkle played in the depths of his transparent eyes. In the entire angular, stooping figure, with its thin legs, there was something comical, yet winning. He was dressed in a blue shirt, and dark, loose trousers thrust into his boots. She was seized with the desire to ask him who he was, whence he came, and whether he had known her son long. But suddenly he himself put a question, leaning forward with a swing of his whole body.
“Who made that hole in your forehead, mother?”
His question was uttered in a kind voice and with a noticeable smile in his eyes; but the woman was offended by the sally. She pressed her lips together tightly, and after a pause rejoined with cold civility:
“And what business is it of yours, sir?”
With the same swing of his whole body toward her, he said:
“Now, don’t get angry! I ask because my foster mother had her head smashed just exactly like yours. It was her man who did it for her once, with a last — he was a shoemaker, you see. She was a washerwoman and he was a shoemaker. It was after she had taken me as her son that she found him somewhere, a drunkard, and married him, to her great misfortune. He beat her — I tell you, my skin almost burst with terror.”
The mother felt herself disarmed by his openness. Moreover, it occurred to her that perhaps her son would be displeased with her harsh reply to this odd personage. Smiling guiltily she said:
“I am not angry, but — you see — you asked so very soon. It was my good man, God rest his soul! who treated me to the cut. Are you a Tartar?”
The stranger stretched out his feet, and smiled so broad a smile that the ends of his mustache traveled to the nape of his neck. Then he said seriously:
“Not yet. I’m not a Tartar yet.”
“I asked because I rather thought the way you spoke was not exactly Russian,” she explained, catching his joke.
“I am better than a Russian, I am!” said the guest laughingly. “I am a Little Russian from the city of Kanyev.”
“And have you been here long?”
“I lived in the city about a month, and I came to your factory about a month ago. I found some good people, your son and a few others. I will live here for a while,” he said, twirling his mustache.
The man pleased the mother, and, yielding to the impulse to repay him in some way for his kind words about her son, she questioned again:
“Maybe you’d like to have a glass of tea?”
“What! An entertainment all to myself!” he answered, raising his shoulders. “I’ll wait for the honor until we are all here.”
This allusion to the coming of others recalled her fear to her.
“If they all are only like this one!” was her ardent wish.
Again steps were heard on the porch. The door opened quickly, and the mother rose. This time she was taken completely aback by the newcomer in her kitchen — a poorly and lightly dressed girl of medium height, with the simple face of a peasant woman, and a head of thick, dark hair. Smiling she said in a low voice:
“Am I late?”
“Why, no!” answered the Little Russian, looking out of the living room. “Come on foot?”
“Of course! Are you the mother of Pavel Vlasov? Good evening! My name is Natasha.”
“And your other name?” inquired the mother.
“Vasilyevna. And yours?”
“So here we are all acquainted.”
“Yes,” said the mother, breathing more easily, as if relieved, and looking at the girl with a smile.
The Little Russian helped her off with her cloak, and inquired:
“Is it cold?”
“Out in the open, very! The wind — goodness!”
Her voice was musical and clear, her mouth small and smiling, her body round and vigorous. Removing her wraps, she rubbed her ruddy cheeks briskly with her little hands, red with the cold, and walking lightly and quickly she passed into the room, the heels of her shoes rapping sharply on the floor.
“She goes without overshoes,” the mother noted silently.
“Indeed it is cold,” repeated the girl. “I’m frozen through — ooh!”
“I’ll warm up the samovar for you!” the mother said, bustling and solicitous. “Ready in a moment,” she called from the kitchen.
Somehow it seemed to her she had known the girl long, and even loved her with the tender, compassionate love of a mother. She was glad to see her; and recalling her guest’s bright blue eyes, she smiled contentedly, as she prepared the samovar and listened to the conversation in the room.
“Why so gloomy, Nakhodka?” asked the girl.
“The widow has good eyes,” answered the Little Russian. “I was thinking maybe my mother has such eyes. You know, I keep thinking of her as alive.”
“You said she was dead?”
“That’s my adopted mother. I am speaking now of my real mother. It seems to me that perhaps she may be somewhere in Kiev begging alms and drinking whisky.”
“Why do you think such awful things?”
“I don’t know. And the policemen pick her up on the street drunk and beat her.”
“Oh, you poor soul,” thought the mother, and sighed.
Natasha muttered something hotly and rapidly; and again the sonorous voice of the Little Russian was heard.
“Ah, you are young yet, comrade,” he said. “You haven’t eaten enough onions yet. Everyone has a mother, none the less people are bad. For although it is hard to rear children, it is still harder to teach a man to be good.”
“What strange ideas he has,” the mother thought, and for a moment she felt like contradicting the Little Russian and telling him that here was she who would have been glad to teach her son good, but knew nothing herself. The door, however, opened and in came Nikolay Vyesovshchikov, the son of the old thief Daniel, known in the village as a misanthrope. He always kept at a sullen distance from people, who retaliated by making sport of him.
“You, Nikolay! How’s that?” she asked in surprise.
Without replying he merely looked at the mother with his little gray eyes, and wiped his pockmarked, high-cheeked face with the broad palm of his hand.
“Is Pavel at home?” he asked hoarsely.
He looked into the room and said:
“Good evening, comrades.”
“He, too. Is it possible?” wondered the mother resentfully, and was greatly surprised to see Natasha put her hand out to him in a kind, glad welcome.
The next to come were two young men, scarcely more than boys. One of them the mother knew. He was Yakob, the son of the factory watchman, Somov. The other, with a sharp-featured face, high forehead, and curly hair, was unknown to her; but he, too, was not terrible.
Finally Pavel appeared, and with him two men, both of whose faces she recognized as those of workmen in the factory.
“You’ve prepared the samovar! That’s fine. Thank you!” said Pavel as he saw what his mother had done.
“Perhaps I should get some vodka,” she suggested, not knowing how to express her gratitude to him for something which as yet she did not understand.
“No, we don’t need it!” he responded, removing his coat and smiling affectionately at her.
It suddenly occurred to her that her son, by way of jest, had purposely exaggerated the danger of the gathering.
“Are these the ones they call illegal people?” she whispered.
“The very ones!” answered Pavel, and passed into the room.
She looked lovingly after him and thought to herself condescendingly:
When the samovar boiled, and she brought it into the room, she found the guests sitting in a close circle around the table, and Natasha installed in the corner under the lamp with a book in her hands.
“In order to understand why people live so badly,” said Natasha.
“And why they are themselves so bad,” put in the Little Russian.
“It is necessary to see how they began to live ——”
“See, my dears, see!” mumbled the mother, making the tea.
They all stopped talking.
“What is the matter, mother?” asked Pavel, knitting his brows.
“What?” She looked around, and seeing the eyes of all upon her she explained with embarrassment, “I was just speaking to myself.”
Natasha laughed and Pavel smiled, but the Little Russian said: “Thank you for the tea, mother.”
“Hasn’t drunk it yet and thanks me already,” she commented inwardly. Looking at her son, she asked: “I am not in your way?”
“How can the hostess in her own home be in the way of her guests?” replied Natasha, and then continuing with childish plaintiveness: “Mother dear, give me tea quick! I am shivering with cold; my feet are all frozen.”
“In a moment, in a moment!” exclaimed the mother, hurrying.
Having drunk a cup of tea, Natasha drew a long breath, brushed her hair back from her forehead, and began to read from a large yellow-covered book with pictures. The mother, careful not to make a noise with the dishes, poured tea into the glasses, and strained her untrained mind to listen to the girl’s fluent reading. The melodious voice blended with the thin, musical hum of the samovar. The clear, simple narrative of savage people who lived in caves and killed the beasts with stones floated and quivered like a dainty ribbon in the room. It sounded like a tale, and the mother looked up to her son occasionally, wishing to ask him what was illegal in the story about wild men. But she soon ceased to follow the narrative and began to scrutinize the guests, unnoticed by them or her son.
Pavel sat at Natasha’s side. He was the handsomest of them all. Natasha bent down, very low over the book. At times she tossed back the thin curls that kept running down over her forehead, and lowered her voice to say something not in the book, with a kind look at the faces of her auditors. The Little Russian bent his broad chest over a corner of the table, and squinted his eyes in the effort to see the worn ends of his mustache, which he constantly twirled. Vyesovshchikov sat on his chair straight as a pole, his palms resting on his knees, and his pockmarked face, browless and thin-lipped, immobile as a mask. He kept his narrow-eyed gaze stubbornly fixed upon the reflection of his face in the glittering brass of the samovar. He seemed not even to breathe. Little Somov moved his lips mutely, as if repeating to himself the words in the book; and his curly-haired companion, with bent body, elbows on knees, his face supported on his hands, smiled abstractedly. One of the men who had entered at the same time as Pavel, a slender young chap with red, curly hair and merry green eyes, apparently wanted to say something; for he kept turning around impatiently. The other, light-haired and closely cropped, stroked his head with his hand and looked down on the floor so that his face remained invisible.
It was warm in the room, and the atmosphere was genial. The mother responded to this peculiar charm, which she had never before felt. She was affected by the purling of Natasha’s voice, mingled with the quavering hum of the samovar, and recalled the noisy evening parties of her youth — the coarseness of the young men, whose breath always smelled of vodka — their cynical jokes. She remembered all this, and an oppressive sense of pity for her own self gently stirred her worn, outraged heart.
Before her rose the scene of the wooing of her husband. At one of the parties he had seized her in a dark porch, and pressing her with his whole body to the wall asked in a gruff, vexed voice:
“Will you marry me?”
She had been pained and had felt offended; but he rudely dug his fingers into her flesh, snorted heavily, and breathed his hot, humid breath into her face. She struggled to tear herself out of his grasp.
“Hold on!” he roared. “Answer me! Well?”
Out of breath, shamed and insulted, she remained silent.
“Don’t put on airs now, you fool! I know your kind. You are mighty pleased.”
Some one opened the door. He let her go leisurely, saying:
“I will send a matchmaker to you next Sunday.”
And he did.
The mother covered her eyes and heaved a deep sigh.
“I do not want to know how people used to live, but how they ought to live!” The dull, dissatisfied voice of Vyesovshchikov was heard in the room.
“That’s it!” corroborated the red-headed man, rising.
“And I disagree!” cried Somov. “If we are to go forward, we must know everything.”
“True, true!” said the curly-headed youth in a low tone.
A heated discussion ensued; and the words flashed like tongues of fire in a wood pile. The mother did not understand what they were shouting about. All faces glowed in an aureole of animation, but none grew angry, no one spoke the harsh, offensive words so familiar to her.
“They restrain themselves on account of a woman’s presence,” she concluded.
The serious face of Natasha pleased her. The young woman looked at all these young men so considerately, with the air of an elder person toward children.
“Wait, comrades,” she broke out suddenly. And they all grew silent and turned their eyes upon her.
“Those who say that we ought to know everything are right. We ought to illumine ourselves with the light of reason, so that the people in the dark may see us; we ought to be able to answer every question honestly and truly. We must know all the truth, all the falsehood.”
The Little Russian listened and nodded his head in accompaniment to her words. Vyesovshchikov, the red-haired fellow, and the other factory worker, who had come with Pavel, stood in a close circle of three. For some reason the mother did not like them.
When Natasha ceased talking, Pavel arose and asked calmly:
“Is filling our stomachs the only thing we want?”
“No!” he answered himself, looking hard in the direction of the three. “We want to be people. We must show those who sit on our necks, and cover up our eyes, that we see everything, that we are not foolish, we are not animals, and that we do not want merely to eat, but also to live like decent human beings. We must show our enemies that our life of servitude, of hard toil which they impose upon us, does not hinder us from measuring up to them in intellect, and as to spirit, that we rise far above them!”
The mother listened to his words, and a feeling of pride in her son stirred her bosom — how eloquently he spoke!
“People with well-filled stomachs are, after all, not a few, but honest people there are none,” said the little Russian. “We ought to build a bridge across the bog of this rotten life to a future of soulful goodness. That’s our task, that’s what we have to do, comrades!”
“When the time is come to fight, it’s not the time to cure the finger,” said Vyesovshchikov dully.
“There will be enough breaking of our bones before we get to fighting!” the Little Russian put in merrily.
It was already past midnight when the group began to break up. The first to go were Vyesovshchikov and the red-haired man — which again displeased the mother.
“Hm! How they hurry!” she thought, nodding them a not very friendly farewell.
“Will you see me home, Nakhodka?” asked Natasha.
“Why, of course,” answered the Little Russian.
When Natasha put on her wraps in the kitchen, the mother said to her: “Your stockings are too thin for this time of the year. Let me knit some woolen ones for you, will you, please?”
“Thank you, Pelagueya Nilovna. Woolen stockings scratch,” Natasha answered, smiling.
“I’ll make them so they won’t scratch.”
Natasha looked at her rather perplexedly, and her fixed serious glance hurt the mother.
“Pardon me my stupidity; like my good will, it’s from my heart, you know,” she added in a low voice.
“How kind you are!” Natasha answered in the same voice, giving her a hasty pressure of the hand and walking out.
“Good night, mother!” said the Little Russian, looking into her eyes. His bending body followed Natasha out to the porch.
The mother looked at her son. He stood in the room at the door and smiled.
“The evening was fine,” he declared, nodding his head energetically. “It was fine! But now I think you’d better go to bed; it’s time.”
“And it’s time for you, too. I’m going in a minute.”
She busied herself about the table gathering the dishes together, satisfied and even glowing with a pleasurable agitation. She was glad that everything had gone so well and had ended peaceably.
“You arranged it nicely, Pavlusha. They certainly are good people. The Little Russian is such a hearty fellow. And the young lady, what a bright, wise girl she is! Who is she?”
“A teacher,” answered Pavel, pacing up and down the room.
“Ah! Such a poor thing! Dressed so poorly! Ah, so poorly! It doesn’t take long to catch a cold. And where are her relatives?”
“In Moscow,” said Pavel, stopping before his mother. “Look! her father is a rich man; he is in the hardware business, and owns much property. He drove her out of the house because she got into this movement. She grew up in comfort and warmth, she was coddled and indulged in everything she desired — and now she walks four miles at night all by herself.”
The mother was shocked. She stood in the middle of the room, and looked mutely at her son. Then she asked quietly:
“Is she going to the city?”
“And is she not afraid?”
“No,” said Pavel smiling.
“Why did she go? She could have stayed here overnight, and slept with me.”
“That wouldn’t do. She might have been seen here to-morrow morning, and we don’t want that; nor does she.”
The mother recollected her previous anxieties, looked thoughtfully through the window, and asked:
“I cannot understand, Pasha, what there is dangerous in all this, or illegal. Why, you are not doing anything bad, are you?”
She was not quite assured of the safety and propriety of his conduct, and was eager for a confirmation from her son. But he looked calmly into her eyes, and declared in a firm voice:
“There is nothing bad in what we’re doing, and there’s not going to be. And yet the prison is awaiting us all. You may as well know it.”
Her hands trembled. “Maybe God will grant you escape somehow,” she said with sunken voice.
“No,” said the son kindly, but decidedly. “I cannot lie to you. We will not escape.” He smiled. “Now go to bed. You are tired. Good night.”
Left alone, she walked up to the window, and stood there looking into the street. Outside it was cold and cheerless. The wind howled, blowing the snow from the roofs of the little sleeping houses. Striking against the walls and whispering something, quickly it fell upon the ground and drifted the white clouds of dry snowflakes across the street.
“O Christ in heaven, have mercy upon us!” prayed the mother.
The tears began to gather in her eyes, as fear returned persistently to her heart, and like a moth in the night she seemed to see fluttering the woe of which her son spoke with such composure and assurance.
Before her eyes as she gazed a smooth plain of snow spread out in the distance. The wind, carrying white, shaggy masses, raced over the plain, piping cold, shrill whistles. Across the snowy expanse moved a girl’s figure, dark and solitary, rocking to and fro. The wind fluttered her dress, clogged her footsteps, and drove pricking snowflakes into her face. Walking was difficult; the little feet sank into the snow. Cold and fearful the girl bent forward, like a blade of grass, the sport of the wanton wind. To the right of her on the marsh stood the dark wall of the forest; the bare birches and aspens quivered and rustled with a mournful cry. Yonder in the distance, before her, the lights of the city glimmered dimly.
“Lord in heaven, have mercy!” the mother muttered again, shuddering with the cold and horror of an unformed fear.
The days glided by one after the other, like the beads of a rosary, and grew into weeks and months. Every Saturday Pavel’s friends gathered in his house; and each meeting formed a step up a long stairway, which led somewhere into the distance, gradually lifting the people higher and higher. But its top remained invisible.
New people kept coming. The small room of the Vlasovs became crowded and close. Natasha arrived every Saturday night, cold and tired, but always fresh and lively, in inexhaustible good spirits. The mother made stockings, and herself put them on the little feet. Natasha laughed at first; but suddenly grew silent and thoughtful, and said in a low voice to the mother:
“I had a nurse who was also ever so kind. How strange, Pelagueya Nilovna! The workingmen live such a hard, outraged life, and yet there is more heart, more goodness in them than in — those!” And she waved her hand, pointing somewhere far, very far from herself.
“See what sort of a person you are,” the older woman answered. “You have left your own family and everything —” She was unable to finish her thought, and heaving a sigh looked silently into Natasha’s face with a feeling of gratitude to the girl for she knew not what. She sat on the floor before Natasha, who smiled and fell to musing.