Nikolay Ivanovich lived on a quiet, deserted street, in a little green wing annexed to a black two-storied structure swollen with age. In front of the wing was a thickly grown little garden, and branches of lilac bushes, acacias, and silvery young poplars looked benignly and freshly into the windows of the three rooms occupied by Nikolay. It was quiet and tidy in his place. The shadows trembled mutely on the floor, shelves closely set with books stretched across the walls, and portraits of stern, serious persons hung over them.
"Do you think you'll find it convenient here?" asked Nikolay, leading the mother into a little room with one window giving on the garden and another on the grass-grown yard. In this room, too, the walls were lined with bookcases and bookshelves.
"I'd rather be in the kitchen," she said. "The little kitchen is bright and clean."
It seemed to her that he grew rather frightened. And when she yielded to his awkward and embarrassed persuasions to take the room, he immediately cheered up.
There was a peculiar atmosphere pervading all the three rooms. It was easy and pleasant to breathe in them; but one's voice involuntarily dropped a note in the wish not to speak aloud and intrude upon the peaceful thoughtfulness of the people who sent down a concentrated look from the walls.
"The flowers need watering," said the mother, feeling the earth in the flowerpots in the windows.
"Yes, yes," said the master guiltily. "I love them very much, but I have no time to take care of them."
The mother noticed that Nikolay walked about in his own comfortable quarters just as carefully and as noiselessly as if he were a stranger, and as if all that surrounded him were remote from him. He would pick up and examine some small article, such as a bust, bring it close to his face, and scrutinize it minutely, adjusting his glasses with the thin finger of his right hand, and screwing up his eyes. He had the appearance of just having entered the rooms for the first time, and everything seemed as unfamiliar and strange to him as to the mother. Consequently, the mother at once felt herself at home. She followed Nikolay, observing where each thing stood, and inquiring about his ways and habits of life. He answered with the guilty air of a man who knows he is all the time doing things as they ought not to be done, but cannot help himself.
After she had watered the flowers and arranged the sheets of music scattered in disorder over the piano, she looked at the samovar, and remarked, "It needs polishing."
Nikolay ran his finger over the dull metal, then stuck the finger close to his nose. He looked at the mother so seriously that she could not restrain a good-natured smile.
When she lay down to sleep and thought of the day just past, she raised her head from the pillow in astonishment and looked around. For the first time in her life she was in the house of a stranger, and she did not experience the least constraint. Her mind dwelt solicitously on Nikolay. She had a distinct desire to do the best she could for him, and to introduce more warmth into his lonely life. She was stirred and affected by his embarrassed awkwardness and droll ignorance, and smiled to herself with a sigh. Then her thoughts leaped to her son and to Andrey. She recalled the high-pitched, sparkling voice of Fedya, and gradually the whole day of the first of May unrolled itself before her, clothed in new sounds, reflecting new thoughts. The trials of the day were peculiar as the day itself. They did not bring her head to the ground as with the dull, stunning blow of the fist. They stabbed the heart with a thousand pricks, and called forth in her a quiet wrath, opening her eyes and straightening her backbone.
"Children go in the world," she thought as she listened to the unfamiliar nocturnal sounds of the city. They crept through the open window like a sigh from afar, stirring the leaves in the garden and faintly expiring in the room.
Early in the morning she polished up the samovar, made a fire in it, and filled it with water, and noiselessly placed the dishes on the table. Then she sat down in the kitchen and waited for Nikolay to rise. Presently she heard him cough. He appeared at the door, holding his glasses in one hand, the other hand at his throat. She responded to his greeting, and brought the samovar into the room. He began to wash himself, splashing the water on the floor, dropping the soap and his toothbrush, and grumbling in dissatisfaction at himself.
When they sat down to drink tea, he said to the mother:
"I am employed in the Zemstvo board—a very sad occupation. I see the way our peasants are going to ruin."
And smiling he repeated guiltily: "It's literally so—I see! People go hungry, they lie down in their graves prematurely, starved to death, children are born feeble and sick, and drop like flies in autumn—we know all this, we know the causes of this wretchedness, and for observing it we receive a good salary. But that's all we do, really; truly all we do."
"And what are you, a student?"
"No. I'm a village teacher. My father was superintendent in a mill in Vyatka, and I became a teacher. But I began to give books to the peasants in the village, and was put in prison for it. When I came out of prison I became clerk in a bookstore, but not behaving carefully enough I got myself into prison again, and was then exiled to Archangel. There I also got into trouble with the governor, and they sent me to the White Sea coast, where I lived for five years."
His talk sounded calm and even in the bright room flooded with sunlight. The mother had already heard many such stories; but she could never understand why they were related with such composure, why no blame was laid on anybody for the suffering the people had gone through, why these sufferings were regarded as so inevitable.
"My sister is coming to-day," he announced.
"Is she married?"
"She's a widow. Her husband was exiled to Siberia; but he escaped, caught a severe cold on the way, and died abroad two years ago."
"Is she younger than you?"
"Six years older. I owe a great deal to her. Wait, and you'll hear how she plays. That's her piano. There are a whole lot of her things here, my books——"
"Where does she live?"
"Everywhere," he answered with a smile. "Wherever a brave soul is needed, there's where you'll find her."
"Also in this movement?"
"Yes, of course."
He soon left to go to work, and the mother fell to thinking of "that movement" for which the people worked, day in, day out, calmly and resolutely. When confronting them she seemed to stand before a mountain looming in the dark.
About noon a tall, well-built lady came. When the mother opened the door for her she threw a little yellow valise on the floor, and quickly seizing Vlasova's hand, asked:
"Are you the mother of Pavel Mikhaylovich?"
"Yes, I am," the mother replied, embarrassed by the lady's rich appearance.
"That's the way I imagined you," said the lady, removing her hat in front of the mirror. "We have been friends of Pavel Mikhaylovich a long time. He spoke about you often."
Her voice was somewhat dull, and she spoke slowly; but her movements were quick and vigorous. Her large, limpid gray eyes smiled youthfully; on her temples, however, thin radiate wrinkles were already limned, and silver hairs glistened over her ears.
"I'm hungry; can I have a cup of coffee?"
"I'll make it for you at once." The mother took down the coffee apparatus from the shelf and quietly asked:
"DID Pasha speak about me?"
"Yes, indeed, a great deal." The lady took out a little leather cigarette case, lighted a cigarette, and inquired: "You're extremely uneasy about him, aren't you?"
The mother smiled, watching the blue, quivering flame of the spirit lamp. Her embarrassment at the presence of the lady vanished in the depths of her joy.
"So he talks about me, my dear son!" she thought.
"You asked me whether I'm uneasy? Of course, it's not easy for me. But it would have been worse some time ago; now I know that he's not alone, and that even I am not alone." Looking into the lady's face, she asked: "What is your name?"
"Sofya," the lady answered, and began to speak in a businesslike way. "The most important thing is that they should not stay in prison long, but that the trial should come off very soon. The moment they are exiled, we'll arrange an escape for Pavel Mikhaylovich. There's nothing for him to do in Siberia, and he's indispensable here."
The mother incredulously regarded Sofya, who was searching about for a place into which to drop her cigarette stump, and finally threw it in a flowerpot.
"That'll spoil the flowers," the mother remarked mechanically.
"Excuse me," said Sofya simply. "Nikolay always tells me the same thing." She picked up the stump and threw it out of the window. The mother looked at her in embarrassment, and said guiltily:
"You must excuse me. I said it without thinking. Is it in my place to teach you?"
"Why not? Why not teach me, if I'm a sloven?" Sofya calmly queried with a shrug. "I know it; but I always forget—the worse for me. It's an ugly habit—to throw cigarette stumps any and everywhere, and to litter up places with ashes—particularly in a woman. Cleanliness in a room is the result of work, and all work ought to be respected. Is the coffee ready? Thank you! Why one cup? Won't you have any?" Suddenly seizing the mother by the shoulder, she drew her to herself, and looking into her eyes asked in surprise: "Why, are you embarrassed?"
The mother answered with a smile:
"I just blamed you for throwing the cigarette stump away—does that look as if I were embarrassed?" Her surprise was unconcealed. "I came to your house only yesterday, but I behave as if I were at home, and as if I had known you a long time. I'm afraid of nothing; I say anything. I even find fault."
"That's the way it ought to be."
"My head's in a whirl. I seem to be a stranger to myself. Formerly I didn't dare speak out from my heart until I'd been with a person a long, long time. And now my heart is always open, and I at once say things I wouldn't have dreamed of before, and a lot of things, too." Sofya lit another cigarette, turning the kind glance of her gray eyes on the mother. "Yes, you speak of arranging an escape. But how will he be able to live as a fugitive?" The mother finally gave expression to the thought that was agitating her.
"That's a trifle," Sofya remarked, pouring out a cup of coffee for herself. "He'll live as scores of other fugitives live. I just met one, and saw him off. Another very valuable man, who worked for the movement in the south. He was exiled for five years, but remained only three and a half months. That's why I look such a grande dame. Do you think I always dress this way? I can't bear this fine toggery, this sumptuous rustle. A human being is simple by nature, and should dress simply—beautifully but simply."
The mother looked at her fixedly, smiled, and shaking her head meditatively said:
"No, it seems that day, the first of May, has changed me. I feel awkward somehow or other, as if I were walking on two roads at the same time. At one moment I understand everything; the next moment I am plunged into a mist. Here are you! I see you a lady; you occupy yourself with this movement, you know Pasha, and you esteem him. Thank you!"
"Why, you ought to be thanked!" Sofya laughed.
"I? I didn't teach him about the movement," the mother said with a sigh. "As I speak now," she continued stubbornly, "everything seems simple and near. Then, all of a sudden, I cannot understand this simplicity. Again, I'm calm. In a second I grow fearful, because I AM calm. I always used to be afraid, my whole life long; but now that there's a great deal to be afraid of, I have very little fear. Why is it? I cannot understand." She stopped, at a loss for words. Sofya looked at her seriously, and waited; but seeing that the mother was agitated, unable to find the expression she wanted, she herself took up the conversation.
"A time will come when you'll understand everything. The chief thing that gives a person power and faith in himself is when he begins to love a certain cause with all his heart, and knows it is a good cause of use to everybody. There IS such a love. There's everything. There's no human being too mean to love. But it's time for me to be getting out of all this magnificence."
Putting the stump of her cigarette in the saucer, she shook her head. Her golden hair fell back in thick waves. She walked away smiling. The mother followed her with her eyes, sighed, and looked around. Her thoughts came to a halt, and in a half-drowsy, oppressive condition of quiet, she began to get the dishes together.
At four o'clock Nikolay appeared. Then they dined. Sofya, laughing at times, told how she met and concealed the fugitive, how she feared the spies, and saw one in every person she met, and how comically the fugitive conducted himself. Something in her tone reminded the mother of the boasting of a workingman who had completed a difficult piece of work to his own satisfaction. She was now dressed in a flowing, dove-colored robe, which fell from her shoulders to her feet in warm waves. The effect was soft and noiseless. She appeared to be taller in this dress; her eyes seemed darker, and her movements less nervous.
"Now, Sofya," said Nikolay after dinner, "here's another job for you. You know we undertook to publish a newspaper for the village. But our connection with the people there was broken, thanks to the latest arrests. No one but Pelagueya Nilovna can show us the man who will undertake the distribution of the newspapers. You go with her. Do it as soon as possible."
"Very well," said Sofya. "We'll go, Pelagueya Nilovna."
"Yes, we'll go."
"Is it far?"
"About fifty miles."
"Splendid! And now I'm going to play a little. Do you mind listening to music, Pelagueya Nilovna?"
"Don't bother about me. Act as if I weren't here," said the mother, seating herself in the corner of the sofa. She saw that the brother and the sister went on with their affairs without giving heed to her; yet, at the same time, she seemed involuntarily to mix in their conversation, imperceptibly drawn into it by them.
"Listen to this, Nikolay. It's by Grieg. I brought it to-day. Shut the window."
She opened the piano, and struck the keys lightly with her left hand. The strings sang out a thick, juicy melody. Another note, breathing a deep, full breath, joined itself to the first, and together they formed a vast fullness of sound that trembled beneath its own weight. Strange, limpid notes rang out from under the fingers of her right hand, and darted off in an alarming flight, swaying and rocking and beating against one another like a swarm of frightened birds. And in the dark background the low notes sang in measured, harmonious cadence like the waves of the sea exhausted by the storm. Some one cried out, a loud, agitated, woeful cry of rebellion, questioned and appealed in impotent anguish, and, losing hope, grew silent; and then again sang his rueful plaints, now resonant and clear, now subdued and dejected. In response to this song came the thick waves of dark sound, broad and resonant, indifferent and hopeless. They drowned by their depth and force the swarm of ringing wails; questions, appeals, groans blended in the alarming song. At times the music seemed to take a desperate upward flight, sobbing and lamenting, and again precipitated itself, crept low, swung hither and thither on the dense, vibratory current of bass notes, foundered, and disappeared in them; and once more breaking through to an even cadence, in a hopeless, calm rumble, it grew in volume, pealed forth, and melted and dissolved in the broad flourish of humid notes—which continued to sigh with equal force and calmness, never wearying.
At first the sounds failed to touch the mother. They were incomprehensible to her, nothing but a ringing chaos. Her ear could not gather a melody from the intricate mass of notes. Half asleep she looked at Nikolay sitting with his feet crossed under him at the other end of the long sofa, and at the severe profile of Sofya with her head enveloped in a mass of golden hair. The sun shone into the room. A single ray, trembling pensively, at first lighted up her hair and shoulder, then settled upon the keys of the piano, and quivered under the pressure of her fingers. The branches of the acacia rocked to and fro outside the window. The room became music-filled, and unawares to her, the mother's heart was stirred. Three notes of nearly the same pitch, resonant as the voice of Fedya Mazin, sparkled in the stream of sounds, like three silvery fish in a brook. At times another note united with these in a simple song, which enfolded the heart in a kind yet sad caress. She began to watch for them, to await their warble, and she heard only their music, distinguished from the tumultuous chaos of sound, to which her ears gradually became deaf.
And for some reason there rose before her out of the obscure depths of her past, wrongs long forgotten.
Once her husband came home late, extremely intoxicated. He grasped her hand, threw her from the bed to the floor, kicked her in the side with his foot, and said:
"Get out! I'm sick of you! Get out!"
In order to protect herself from his blows, she quickly gathered her two-year-old son into her arms, and kneeling covered herself with his body as with a shield. He cried, struggled in her arms, frightened, naked, and warm.
"Get out!" bellowed her husband.
She jumped to her feet, rushed into the kitchen, threw a jacket over her shoulders, wrapped the baby in a shawl, and silently, without outcries or complaints, barefoot, in nothing but a shirt under her jacket, walked out into the street. It was in the month of May, and the night was fresh. The cold, damp dust of the street stuck to her feet, and got between her toes. The child wept and struggled. She opened her breast, pressed her son to her body, and pursued by fear walked down the street, quietly lulling the baby.
It began to grow light. She was afraid and ashamed lest some one come out on the street and see her half naked. She turned toward the marsh, and sat down on the ground under a thick group of aspens. She sat there for a long time, embraced by the night, motionless, looking into the darkness with wide-open eyes, and timidly wailing a lullaby—a lullaby for her baby, which had fallen asleep, and a lullaby for her outraged heart.
A gray bird darted over her head, and flew far away. It awakened her, and brought her to her feet. Then, shivering with cold, she walked home to confront the horror of blows and new insults.
For the last time a heavy and resonant chord heaved a deep breath, indifferent and cold; it sighed and died away.
Sofya turned around, and asked her brother softly:
"Did you like it?"
"Very much," he said, nodding his head. "Very much."
Sofya looked at the mother's face, but said nothing.
"They say," said Nikolay thoughtfully, throwing himself deeper back on the sofa, "that you should listen to music without thinking. But I can't."
"Nor can I," said Sofya, striking a melodious chord.
"I listened, and it seemed to me that people were putting their questions to nature, that they grieved and groaned, and protested angrily, and shouted, 'Why?' Nature does not answer, but goes on calmly creating, incessantly, forever. In her silence is heard her answer: 'I do not know.'"
The mother listened to Nikolay's quiet words without understanding them, and without desiring to understand. Her bosom echoed with her reminiscences, and she wanted more music. Side by side with her memories the thought unfolded itself before her: "Here live people, a brother and sister, in friendship; they live peacefully and calmly—they have music and books—they don't swear at each other—they don't drink whisky—they don't quarrel for a relish—they have no desire to insult each other, the way all the people at the bottom do."
Sofya quickly lighted a cigarette; she smoked almost without intermission.
"This used to be the favorite piece of Kostya," she said, as a veil of smoke quickly enveloped her. She again struck a low mournful chord. "How I used to love to play for him! You remember how well he translated music into language?" She paused and smiled. "How sensitive he was! What fine feelings he had—so responsive to everything—so fully a man!"
"She must be recalling memories of her husband," the mother noted, "and she smiles!"
"How much happiness that man gave me!" said Sofya in a low voice, accompanying her words with light sounds on the keys. "What a capacity he had for living! He was always aglow with joy, buoyant, childlike joy!"
"Childlike," repeated the mother to herself, and shook her head as if agreeing with something.
"Ye-es," said Nikolay, pulling his beard, "his soul was always singing."
"When I played this piece for him the first time, he put it in these words." Sofya turned her face to her brother, and slowly stretched out her arms. Encircled with blue streaks of smoke, she spoke in a low, rapturous voice. "In a barren sea of the far north, under the gray canopy of the cold heavens, stands a lonely black island, an unpeopled rock, covered with ice; the smoothly polished shore descends abruptly into the gray, foaming billows. The transparently blue blocks of ice inhospitably float on the shaking cold water and press against the dark rock of the island. Their knocking resounds mournfully in the dead stillness of the barren sea. They have been floating a long time on the bottomless depths, and the waves splashing about them have quietly borne them toward the lonely rock in the midst of the sea. The sound is grewsome as they break against the shore and against one another, sadly inquiring: 'Why?'"
Sofya flung away the cigarette she had begun to smoke, turned to the piano, and again began to play the ringing plaints, the plaints of the lonely blocks of ice by the shore of the barren island in the sea of the far north.
The mother was overcome with unendurable sadness as she listened to the simple sketch. It blended strangely with her past, into which her recollections kept boring deeper and deeper.
"In music one can hear everything," said Nikolay quietly.
Sofya turned toward the mother, and asked:
"Do you mind my noise?"
The mother was unable to restrain her slight irritation.
"I told you not to pay any attention to me. I sit here and listen and think about myself."
"No, you ought to understand," said Sofya. "A woman can't help understanding music, especially when in grief."
She struck the keys powerfully, and a loud shout went forth, as if some one had suddenly heard horrible news, which pierced him to the heart, and wrenched from him this troubled sound. Young voices trembled in affright, people rushed about in haste, pellmell. Again a loud, angry voice shouted out, drowning all other sounds. Apparently a catastrophe had occurred, in which the chief source of pain was an affront offered to some one. It evoked not complaints, but wrath. Then some kindly and powerful person appeared, who began to sing, just like Andrey, a simple beautiful song, a song of exhortation and summons to himself. The voices of the bass notes grumbled in a dull, offended tone.
Sofya played a long time. The music disquieted the mother, and aroused in her a desire to ask of what it was speaking. Indistinct sensations and thoughts passed through her mind in quick succession. Sadness and anxiety gave place to moments of calm joy. A swarm of unseen birds seemed to be flying about in the room, penetrating everywhere, touching the heart with caressing wings, soothing and at the same time alarming it. The feelings in the mother's breast could not be fixed in words. They emboldened her heart with perplexed hopes, they fondled it in a fresh and firm embrace.
A kindly impulse came to her to say something good both to these two persons and to all people in general. She smiled softly, intoxicated by the music, feeling herself capable of doing work helpful to the brother and sister. Her eyes roved about in search of something to do for them. She saw nothing but to walk out into the kitchen quietly, and prepare the samovar. But this did not satisfy her desire. It struggled stubbornly in her breast, and as she poured out the tea she began to speak excitedly with an agitated smile. She seemed to bestow the words as a warm caress impartially on Sofya and Nikolay and on herself.
"We people at the bottom feel everything; but it is hard for us to speak out our hearts. Our thoughts float about in us. We are ashamed because, although we understand, we are not able to express them; and often from shame we are angry at our thoughts, and at those who inspire them. We drive them away from ourselves. For life, you see, is so troublesome. From all sides we get blows and beatings; we want rest, and there come the thoughts that rouse our souls and demand things of us."
Nikolay listened, and nodded his head, rubbing his eyeglasses briskly, while Sofya looked at her, her large eyes wide open and the forgotten cigarette burning to ashes. She sat half turned from the piano, supple and shapely, at times touching the keys lightly with the slender fingers of her right hand. The pensive chord blended delicately with the speech of the mother, as she quickly invested her new feelings and thoughts in simple, hearty words.
"Now I am able to say something about myself, about my people, because I understand life. I began to understand it when I was able to make comparisons. Before that time there was nobody to compare myself with. In our state, you see, all lead the same life, and now that I see how others live, I look back at my life, and the recollection is hard and bitter. But it is impossible to return, and even if you could, you wouldn't find your youth again. And I think I understand a great deal. Here, I am looking at you, and I recollect all your people whom I've seen." She lowered her voice and continued: "Maybe I don't say things right, and I needn't say them, because you know them yourself; but I'm just speaking for myself. You at once set me alongside of you. You don't need anything of me; you can't make use of me; you can't get any enjoyment out of me, I know it. And day after day my heart grows, thank God! It grows in goodness, and I wish good for everybody. This is my thanks that I'm saying to you." Tears of happy gratitude affected her voice, and looking at them with a smile in her eyes, she went on: "I want to open my heart before you, so that you may see how I wish your welfare."
"We see it," said Nikolay in a low voice. "You're making a holiday for us."
"What do you think I imagined?" the mother asked with a smile and lowering her voice. "I imagined I found a treasure, and became rich, and I could endow everybody. Maybe it's only my stupidity that's run away with me."
"Don't speak like that," said Sofya seriously. "You mustn't be ashamed."
The mother began to speak again, telling Sofya and Nikolay of herself, her poor life, her wrongs, and patient sufferings. Suddenly she stopped in her narrative. It seemed to her that she was turning aside, away from herself, and speaking about somebody else. In simple words, without malice, with a sad smile on her lips, she drew the monotonous gray sketch of sorrowful days. She enumerated the beatings she had received from her husband; and herself marveled at the trifling causes that led to them and her own inability to avert them.
The brother and sister listened to her in attentive silence, impressed by the deep significance of the unadorned story of a human being, who was regarded as cattle are regarded, and who, without a murmur, for a long time felt herself to be that which she was held to be. It seemed to them as if thousands, nay millions, of lives spoke through her mouth. Her existence had been commonplace and simple; but such is the simple, ordinary existence of multitudes, and her story, assuming ever larger proportions in their eyes, took on the significance of a symbol. Nikolay, his elbows on the table, and his head leaning on his hands, looked at her through his glasses without moving, his eyes screwed up intently. Sofya flung herself back on her chair. Sometimes she trembled, and at times muttered to herself, shaking her head in disapproval. Her face grew paler. Her eyes deepened.
"Once I thought myself unhappy. My life seemed a fever," said Sofya, inclining her head. "That was when I was in exile. It was in a small district town. There was nothing to do, nothing to think about except myself. I swept all my misfortunes together into one heap, and weighed them, from lack of anything better to do. Then I quarreled with my father, whom I loved. I was expelled from the gymnasium, and insulted—the prison, the treachery of a comrade near to me, the arrest of my husband, again prison and exile, the death of my husband. But all my misfortunes, and ten times their number, are not worth a month of your life, Pelagueya Nilovna. Your torture continued daily through years. From where do the people draw their power to suffer?"
"They get used to it," responded the mother with a sigh.
"I thought I knew that life," said Nikolay softly. "But when I hear it spoken of—not when my books, not when my incomplete impressions speak about it, but she herself with a living tongue—it is horrible. And the details are horrible, the inanities, the seconds of which the years are made."
The conversation sped along, thoughtfully and quietly. It branched out and embraced the whole of common life on all sides. The mother became absorbed in her recollections. From her dim past she drew to light each daily wrong, and gave a massive picture of the huge, dumb horror in which her youth had been sunk. Finally she said:
"Oh! How I've been chattering to you! It's time for you to rest. I'll never be able to tell you all."
The brother and sister took leave of her in silence. Nikolay seemed to the mother to bow lower to her than ever before and to press her hand more firmly. Sofya accompanied her to her room, and stopping at the door said softly: "Now rest. I hope you have a good night."
Her voice blew a warm breath on the mother, and her gray eyes embraced the mother's face in a caress. She took Sofya's hand and pressing it in hers, answered: "Thank you! You are good people."