Spring was rapidly drawing near; the snow melted and laid bare the mud and the soot of the factory chimneys. Mud, mud! Wherever the villagers looked—mud! Every day more mud! The entire village seemed unwashed and dressed in rags and tatters. During the day the water dripped monotonously from the roofs, and damp, weary exhalations emanated from the gray walls of the houses. Toward night whitish icicles glistened everywhere in dim outline. The sun appeared in the heavens more frequently, and the brooks began to murmur hesitatingly on their way to the marsh. At noon the throbbing song of spring hopes hung tremblingly and caressingly over the village.
They were preparing to celebrate the first of May. Leaflets appeared in the factory explaining the significance of this holiday, and even the young men not affected by the propaganda said, as they read them:
"Yes, we must arrange a holiday!"
Vyesovshchikov exclaimed with a sullen grin:
"It's time! Time we stopped playing hide and seek!"
Fedya Mazin was in high spirits. He had grown very thin. With his nervous, jerky gestures, and the trepidation in his speech, he was like a caged lark. He was always with Yakob Somov, taciturn and serious beyond his years.
Samoylov, who had grown still redder in prison, Vasily Gusev, curly-haired Dragunov, and a number of others argued that it was necessary to come out armed, but Pavel and the Little Russian, Somov, and others said it was not.
Yegor always came tired, perspiring, short of breath, but always joking.
"The work of changing the present order of things, comrades, is a great work, but in order to advance it more rapidly, I must buy myself a pair of boots!" he said, pointing to his wet, torn shoes. "My overshoes, too, are torn beyond the hope of redemption, and I get my feet wet every day. I have no intention of migrating from the earth even to the nearest planet before we have publicly and openly renounced the old order of things; and I am therefore absolutely opposed to comrade Samoylov's motion for an armed demonstration. I amend the motion to read that I be armed with a pair of strong boots, inasmuch as I am profoundly convinced that this will be of greater service for the ultimate triumph of socialism than even a grand exhibition of fisticuffs and black eyes!"
In the same playfully pretentious language, he told the workingmen the story of how in various foreign countries the people strove to lighten the burden of their lives. The mother loved to listen to his tales, and carried away a strange impression from them. She conceived the shrewdest enemies of the people, those who deceived them most frequently and most cruelly, as little, big-bellied, red-faced creatures, unprincipled and greedy, cunning and heartless. When life was hard for them under the domination of the czars, they would incite the common people against the ruler; and when the people arose and wrested the power from him, these little creatures got it into their own hands by deceit, and drove the people off to their holes; and if the people remonstrated, they killed them by the hundreds and thousands.
Once she summoned up courage and told him of the picture she had formed of life from his tales, and asked him:
"Is it so, Yegor Ivanovich?"
He burst into a guffaw, turned up his eyes, gasped for breath, and rubbed his chest.
"Exactly, granny! You caught the idea to a dot! Yes, yes! You've placed some ornaments on the canvas of history, you've added some flourishes, but that does not interfere with the correctness of the whole. It's these very little, pot-bellied creatures who are the chief sinners and deceivers and the most poisonous insects that harass the human race. The Frenchmen call them 'bourgeois.' Remember that word, dear granny—bourgeois! Brr! How they chew us and grind us and suck the life out of us!"
"The rich, you mean?"
"Yes, the rich. And that's their misfortune. You see, if you keep adding copper bit by bit to a child's food, you prevent the growth of its bones, and he'll be a dwarf; and if from his youth up you poison a man with gold, you deaden his soul."
Once, speaking about Yegor, Pavel said:
"Do you know, Andrey, the people whose hearts are always aching are the ones who joke most?"
The Little Russian was silent a while, and then answered, blinking his eyes:
"No, that's not true. If it were, then the whole of Russia would split its sides with laughter."
Natasha made her appearance again. She, too, had been in prison, in another city, but she had not changed. The mother noticed that in her presence the Little Russian grew more cheerful, was full of jokes, poked fun at everybody, and kept her laughing merrily. But after she had left he would whistle his endless songs sadly, and pace up and down the room for a long time, wearily dragging his feet along the floor.
Sashenka came running in frequently, always gloomy, always in haste, and for some reason more and more angular and stiff. Once when Pavel accompanied her out onto the porch, the mother overheard their abrupt conversation.
"Will you carry the banner?" the girl asked in a low voice.
"Is it settled?"
"Yes, it's my right."
"To prison again?" Pavel was silent. "Is it not possible for you—" She stopped.
"To give it up to somebody else?"
"No!" he said aloud.
"Think of it! You're a man of such influence; you are so much liked—you and Nakhodka are the two foremost revolutionary workers here. Think how much you could accomplish for the cause of freedom! You know that for this they'll send you off far, far, and for a long time!"
Nilovna thought she heard in the girl's voice the familiar sound of fear and anguish, and her words fell upon the mother's heart like heavy, icy drops of water.
"No, I have made up my mind. Nothing can make me give it up!"
"Not even if I beg you—if I——"
Pavel suddenly began to speak rapidly with a peculiar sternness.
"You ought not to speak that way. Why you? You ought not!"
"I am a human being!" she said in an undertone.
"A good human being, too!" he said also in an undertone, and in a peculiar voice, as if unable to catch his breath. "You are a dear human being to me, yes! And that's why—why you mustn't talk that way!"
"Good-by!" said the girl.
The mother heard the sound of her departing footsteps, and knew that she was walking away very fast, nay, almost running. Pavel followed her into the yard.
A heavy oppressive fear fell like a load on the mother's breast. She did not understand what they had been talking about, but she felt that a new misfortune was in store for her, a great and sad misfortune. And her thoughts halted at the question, "What does he want to do?" Her thoughts halted, and were driven into her brain like a nail. She stood in the kitchen by the oven, and looked through the window into the profound, starry heaven.
Pavel walked in from the yard with Andrey, and the Little Russian said, shaking his head:
"Oh, Isay, Isay! What's to be done with him?"
"We must advise him to give up his project," said Pavel glumly.
"Then he'll hand over those who speak to him to the authorities," said the Little Russian, flinging his hat away in a corner.
"Pasha, what do you want to do?" asked the mother, drooping her head.
"The first of May—the first of May."
"Aha!" exclaimed Pavel, lowering his voice. "You heard! I am going to carry our banner. I will march with it at the head of the procession. I suppose they'll put me in prison for it again."
The mother's eyes began to burn. An unpleasant, dry feeling came into her mouth. Pavel took her hand and stroked it.
"I must do it! Please understand me! It is my happiness!"
"I'm not saying anything," she answered, slowly raising her head; but when her eyes met the resolute gleam in his, she again lowered it. He released her hand, and with a sigh said reproachfully:
"You oughtn't to be grieved. You ought to feel rejoiced. When are we going to have mothers who will rejoice in sending their children even to death?"
"Hopp! Hopp!" mumbled the Little Russian. "How you gallop away!"
"Why; do I say anything to you?" the mother repeated. "I don't interfere with you. And if I'm sorry for you—well, that's a mother's way."
Pavel drew away from her, and she heard his sharp, harsh words:
"There is a love that interferes with a man's very life."
She began to tremble, and fearing that he might deal another blow at her heart by saying something stern, she rejoined quickly:
"Don't, Pasha! Why should you? I understand. You can't act otherwise, you must do it for your comrades."
"No!" he replied. "I am doing it for myself. For their sake I can go without carrying the banner, but I'm going to do it!"
Andrey stationed himself in the doorway. It was too low for him, and he had to bend his knees oddly. He stood there as in a frame, one shoulder leaning against the jamb, his head and other shoulder thrust forward.
"I wish you would stop palavering, my dear sir," he said with a frown, fixing his protuberant eyes on Pavel's face. He looked like a lizard in the crevice of a stone wall.
The mother was overcome with a desire to weep, but she did not want her son to see her tears, and suddenly mumbled: "Oh, dear!—I forgot—" and walked out to the porch. There, her head in a corner, she wept noiselessly; and her copious tears weakened her, as though blood oozed from her heart along with them.
Through the door standing ajar the hollow sound of disputing voices reached her ear.
"Well, do you admire yourself for having tortured her?"
"You have no right to speak like that!" shouted Pavel.
"A fine comrade I'd be to you if I kept quiet when I see you making a fool of yourself. Why did you say all that to your mother?"
"A man must always speak firmly and without equivocation. He must be clear and definite when he says 'Yes.' He must be clear and definite when he says 'No.'"
"To her—to her must you speak that way?"
"To everybody! I want no love, I want no friendship which gets between my feet and holds me back."
"Bravo! You're a hero! Go say all this to Sashenka. You should have said that to her."
"You have! The way you spoke to your mother? You have not! To her you spoke softly; you spoke gently and tenderly to her. I did not hear you, but I know it! But you trot out your heroism before your mother. Of course! Your heroism is not worth a cent."
Vlasova began to wipe the tears from her face in haste. For fear a serious quarrel should break out between the Little Russian and Pavel, she quickly opened the door and entered the kitchen, shivering, terrified, and distressed.
"Ugh! How cold! And it's spring, too!"
She aimlessly removed various things in the kitchen from one place to another, and in order to drown the subdued voices in the room, she continued in a louder voice:
"Everything's changed. People have grown hotter and the weather colder. At this time of the year it used to get warm; the sky would clear, and the sun would be out."
Silence ensued in the room. The mother stood waiting in the middle of the floor.
"Did you hear?" came the low sound of the Little Russian's voice. "You must understand it, the devil take it! That's richer than yours."
"Will you have some tea?" the mother called with a trembling voice, and without waiting for an answer she exclaimed, in order to excuse the tremor in her voice:
"How cold I am!"
Pavel came up slowly to her, looking at her from the corners of his eyes, a guilty smile quivering on his lips.
"Forgive me, mother!" he said softly. "I am still a boy, a fool."
"You mustn't hurt me!" she cried in a sorrowful voice, pressing his head to her bosom. "Say nothing! God be with you. Your life is your own! But don't wound my heart. How can a mother help sorrowing for her son? Impossible! I am sorry for all of you. You are all dear to me as my own flesh and blood; you are all such good people! And who will be sorry for you if I am not? You go and others follow you. They have all left everything behind them, Pasha, and gone into this thing. It's just like a sacred procession."
A great ardent thought burned in her bosom, animating her heart with an exalted feeling of sad, tormenting joy; but she could find no words, and she waved her hands with the pang of muteness. She looked into her son's face with eyes in which a bright, sharp pain had lit its fires.
"Very well, mother! Forgive me. I see all now!" he muttered, lowering his head. Glancing at her with a light smile, he added, embarrassed but happy: "I will not forget this, mother, upon my word."
She pushed him from her, and looking into the room she said to Andrey in a good-natured tone of entreaty:
"Andriusha, please don't you shout at him so! Of course, you are older than he, and so you——"
The Little Russian was standing with his back toward her. He sang out drolly without turning around to face her:
"Oh, oh, oh! I'll bawl at him, be sure! And I'll beat him some day, too."
She walked up slowly to him, with outstretched hand, and said:
"My dear, dear man!"
The Little Russian turned around, bent his head like an ox, and folding his hands behind his back walked past her into the kitchen. Thence his voice issued in a tone of mock sullenness:
"You had better go away, Pavel, so I shan't bite your head off! I am only joking, mother; don't believe it! I want to prepare the samovar. What coals these are! Wet, the devil take them!"
He became silent, and when the mother walked into the kitchen he was sitting on the floor, blowing the coals in the samovar. Without looking at her the Little Russian began again:
"Yes, mother, don't be afraid. I won't touch him. You know, I'm a good-natured chap, soft as a stewed turnip. And then—you hero out there, don't listen—I love him! But I don't like the waistcoat he wears. You see, he has put on a new waistcoat, and he likes it very much, so he goes strutting about, and pushes everybody, crying: 'See, see what a waistcoat I have on!' It's true, it's a fine waistcoat. But what's the use of pushing people? It's hot enough for us without it."
Pavel smiled and asked:
"How long do you mean to keep up your jabbering? You gave me one thrashing with your tongue. That's enough!"
Sitting on the floor, the Little Russian spread his legs around the samovar, and regarded Pavel. The mother stood at the door, and fixed a sad, affectionate gaze at Andrey's long, bent neck and the round back of his head. He threw his body back, supporting himself with his hands on the floor, looked at the mother and at the son with his slightly reddened and blinking eyes, and said in a low, hearty voice:
"You are good people, yes, you are!"
Pavel bent down and grasped his hand.
"Don't pull my hand," said the Little Russian gruffly. "You'll let go and I'll fall. Go away!"
"Why are you so shy?" the mother said pensively. "You'd better embrace and kiss. Press hard, hard!"
"Do you want to?" asked Pavel softly.
"We—ell, why not?" answered the Little Russian, rising.
Pavel dropped on his knees, and grasping each other firmly, they sank for a moment into each other's embrace—two bodies and one soul passionately and evenly burning with a profound feeling of friendship.
Tears ran down the mother's face, but this time they were easy tears. Drying them she said in embarrassment:
"A woman likes to cry. She cries when she is in sorrow, she cries when she is in joy!"
The Little Russian pushed Pavel away, and with a light movement, also wiping his eyes with his fingers, he said:
"Enough! When the calves have had their frolic, they must go to the shambles. What beastly coal this is! I blew and blew on it, and got some of the dust in my eyes."
Pavel sat at the window with bent head, and said mildly:
"You needn't be ashamed of such tears."
The mother walked up to him, and sat down beside him. Her heart was wrapped in a soft, warm, daring feeling. She felt sad, but pleasant and at ease.
"It's all the same!" she thought, stroking her son's hand. "It can't be helped; it must be so!"
She recalled other such commonplace words, to which she had been accustomed for a long time; but they did not give adequate expression to all she had lived through that moment.
"I'll put the dishes on the table; you stay where you are, mother," said the Little Russian, rising from the floor, and going into the room. "Rest a while. Your heart has been worn out with such blows!"
And from the room his singing voice, raised to a higher pitch, was heard.
"It's not a nice thing to boast of, yet I must say we tasted the right life just now, real, human, loving life. It does us good."
"Yes," said Pavel, looking at the mother.
"It's all different now," she returned. "The sorrow is different, and the joy is different. I do not know anything, of course! I do not understand what it is I live by—and I can't express my feelings in words!"
"This is the way it ought to be!" said the Little Russian, returning. "Because, mark you, mother dear, a new heart is coming into existence, a new heart is growing up in life. All hearts are smitten in the conflict of interests, all are consumed with a blind greed, eaten up with envy, stricken, wounded, and dripping with filth, falsehood, and cowardice. All people are sick; they are afraid to live; they wander about as in a mist. Everyone feels only his own toothache. But lo, and behold! Here is a Man coming and illuminating life with the light of reason, and he shouts: 'Oh, ho! you straying roaches! It's time, high time, for you to understand that all your interests are one, that everyone has the need to live, everyone has the desire to grow!' The Man who shouts this is alone, and therefore he cries aloud; he needs comrades, he feels dreary in his loneliness, dreary and cold. And at his call the stanch hearts unite into one great, strong heart, deep and sensitive as a silver bell not yet cast. And hark! This bell rings forth the message: 'Men of all countries, unite into one family! Love is the mother of life, not hate!' My brothers! I hear this message sounding through the world!"
"And I do, too!" cried Pavel.
The mother compressed her lips to keep them from trembling, and shut her eyes tight so as not to cry.
"When I lie in bed at night or am out walking alone—everywhere I hear this sound, and my heart rejoices. And the earth, too—I know it—weary of injustice and sorrow, rings out like a bell, responding to the call, and trembles benignly, greeting the new sun arising in the breast of Man."
Pavel rose, lifted his hand, and was about to say something, but the mother took his other hand, and pulling him down whispered in his ear:
"Don't disturb him!"
"Do you know?" said the Little Russian, standing in the doorway, his eyes aglow with a bright flame, "there is still much suffering in store for the people, much of their blood will yet flow, squeezed out by the hands of greed; but all that—all my suffering, all my blood, is a small price for that which is already stirring in my breast, in my mind, in the marrow of my bones! I am already rich, as a star is rich in golden rays. And I will bear all, I will suffer all, because there is within me a joy which no one, which nothing can ever stifle! In this joy there is a world of strength!"
They drank tea and sat around the table until midnight, and conversed heart to heart and harmoniously about life, about people, and about the future.