The life of Nilovna flowed on with strange placidity. This calmness sometimes astonished her. There was her son immured in prison. She knew that a severe sentence awaited him, yet every time the idea of it came to her mind her thoughts strayed to Andrey, Fedya, and an endless series of other people she had never seen, but only heard of. The figure of her son appeared to her absorbing all the people into his own destiny. The contemplative feeling aroused in her involuntarily and unnoticeably diverted her inward gaze away from him to all sides. Like thin, uneven rays it touched upon everything, tried to throw light everywhere, and make one picture of the whole. Her mind was hindered from dwelling upon some one thing.
Sofya soon went off somewhere, and reappeared in about five days, merry and vivacious. Then, in a few hours, she vanished again, and returned within a couple of weeks. It seemed as if she were borne along in life in wide circles.
Nikolay, always occupied, lived a monotonous, methodical existence. At eight o'clock in the morning he drank tea, read the newspapers, and recounted the news to the mother. He repeated the speeches of the merchants in the Douma without malice, and clearly depicted the life in the city.
Listening to him the mother saw with transparent dearness the mechanism of this life pitilessly grinding the people in the millstones of money. At nine o'clock he went off to the office.
She tidied the rooms, prepared dinner, washed herself, put on a clean dress, and then sat in her room to examine the pictures and the books. She had already learned to read, but the effort of reading quickly exhausted her; and she ceased to understand the meaning of the words. But the pictures were a constant astonishment to her. They opened up before her a clear, almost tangible world of new and marvelous things. Huge cities arose before her, beautiful structures, machines, ships, monuments, and infinite wealth, created by the people, overwhelming the mind by the variety of nature's products. Life widened endlessly; each day brought some new, huge wonders. The awakened hungry soul of the woman was more and more strongly aroused to the multitude of riches in the world, its countless beauties. She especially loved to look through the great folios of the zoological atlas, and although the text was written in a foreign language, it gave her the clearest conception of the beauty, wealth, and vastness of the earth.
"It's an immense world," she said to Nikolay at dinner.
"Yes, and yet the people are crowded for space."
The insects, particularly the butterflies, astonished her most.
"What beauty, Nikolay Ivanovich," she observed. "And how much of this fascinating beauty there is everywhere, but all covered up from us; it all flies by without our seeing it. People toss about, they know nothing, they are unable to take delight in anything, they have no inclination for it. How many could take happiness to themselves if they knew how rich the earth is, how many wonderful things live in it!"
Nikolay listened to her raptures, smiled, and brought her new illustrated books.
In the evening visitors often gathered in his house—Alexey Vasilyevich, a handsome man, pale-faced, black-bearded, sedate, and taciturn; Roman Petrovich, a pimply, round-headed individual always smacking his lips regretfully; Ivan Danilovich, a short, lean fellow with a pointed beard and thin hair, impetuous, vociferous, and sharp as an awl, and Yegor, always joking with his comrades about his sickness. Sometimes other people were present who had come from various distant cities. The long conversations always turned on one and the same thing, on the working people of the world. The comrades discussed the workingmen, got into arguments about them, became heated, waved their hands, and drank much tea; while Nikolay, in the noise of the conversation, silently composed proclamations. Then he read them to the comrades, who copied them on the spot in printed letters. The mother carefully collected the pieces of the torn, rough copies, and burned them.
She poured, out tea for them, and wondered at the warmth with which they discussed life and the workingpeople, the means whereby to sow truth among them the sooner and the better, and how to elevate their spirit. These problems were always agitating the comrades; their lives revolved about them. Often they angrily disagreed, blamed one another for something, got offended, and again discussed.
The mother felt that she knew the life of the workingmen better than these people, and saw more clearly than they the enormity of the task they assumed. She could look upon them with the somewhat melancholy indulgence of a grown-up person toward children who play man and wife without understanding the drama of the relation.
Sometimes Sashenka came. She never stayed long, and always spoke in a businesslike way without smiling. She did not once fail to ask on leaving how Pavel Mikhaylovich was.
"Is he well?" she would ask.
"Thank God! So, so. He's in good spirits."
"Give him my regards," the girl would request, and then disappear.
Sometimes the mother complained to Sashenka because Pavel was detained so long and no date was yet set for his trial. Sashenka looked gloomy, and maintained silence, her fingers twitching. Nilovna was tempted to say to her: "My dear girl, why, I know you love him, I know." But Sashenka's austere face, her compressed lips, and her dry, businesslike manner, which seemed to betoken a desire for silence as soon as possible, forbade any demonstration of sentiment. With a sigh the mother mutely clasped the hand that the girl extended to her, and thought: "My unhappy girl!"
Once Natasha came. She showed great delight at seeing the mother, kissed her, and among other things announced to her quietly, as if she had just thought of the thing:
"My mother died. Poor woman, she's dead!" She wiped her eyes with a rapid gesture of her hands, and continued: "I'm sorry for her. She was not yet fifty. She had a long life before her still. But when you look at it from the other side you can't help thinking that death is easier than such a life—always alone, a stranger to everybody, needed by no one, scared by the shouts of my father. Can you call that living? People live waiting for something good, and she had nothing to expect except insults."
"You're right, Natasha," said the mother musingly. "People live expecting some good, and if there's nothing to expect, what sort of a life is it?" Kindly stroking Natasha's hand, she asked: "So you're alone now?"
"Alone!" the girl rejoined lightly.
The mother was silent, then suddenly remarked with a smile:
"Never mind! A good person does not live alone. People will always attach themselves to a good person."
Natasha was now a teacher in a little town where there was a textile mill, and Nilovna occasionally procured illegal books, proclamations, and newspapers for her. The distribution of literature, in fact, became the mother's occupation. Several times a month, dressed as a nun or as a peddler of laces or small linen articles, as a rich merchant's wife or a religious pilgrim, she rode or walked about with a sack on her back, or a valise in her hand. Everywhere, in the train, in the steamers, in hotels and inns, she behaved simply and unobtrusively. She was the first to enter into conversations with strangers, fearlessly drawing attention to herself by her kind, sociable talk and the confident manner of an experienced person who has seen and heard much.
She liked to speak to people, liked to listen to their stories of life, their complaints, their perplexities, and lamentations. Her heart was bathed in joy each time she noticed in anybody poignant discontent with life, that discontent which, protesting against the blows of fate, earnestly seeks to find an answer to its questions. Before her the picture of human life unrolled itself ever wider and more varicolored, that restless, anxious life passed in the struggle to fill the stomach. Everywhere she clearly saw the coarse, bare striving, insolent in its openness, deceiving man, robbing him, pressing out of him as much sap as possible, draining him of his very lifeblood. She realized that there was plenty of everything upon earth, but that the people were in want, and lived half starved, surrounded by inexhaustible wealth. In the cities stood churches filled with gold and silver, not needed by God, and at the entrance to the churches shivered the beggars vainly awaiting a little copper coin to be thrust into their hands. Formerly she had seen this, too—rich churches, priestly vestments sewed with gold threads, and the hovels of the poor, their ignominious rags. But at that time the thing had seemed natural; now the contrast was irreconcilable and insulting to the poor, to whom, she knew, the churches were both nearer and more necessary than to the rich.
From the pictures and stories of Christ, she knew also that he was a friend of the poor, that he dressed simply. But in the churches, where poverty came to him for consolation, she saw him nailed to the cross with insolent gold, she saw silks and satins flaunting in the fact of want. The words of Rybin occurred to her: "They have mutilated even our God for us, they have turned everything in their hands against us. In the churches they set up a scarecrow before us. They have dressed God up in falsehood and calumny; they have distorted His face in order to destroy our souls!"
Without being herself aware of it, she prayed less; yet, at the same time, she meditated more and more upon Christ and the people who, without mentioning his name, as though ignorant of him, lived, it seemed to her, according to his will, and, like him, regarded the earth as the kingdom of the poor, and wanted to divide all the wealth of the earth among the poor. Her reflections grew in her soul, deepening and embracing everything she saw and heard. They grew and assumed the bright aspect of a prayer, suffusing an even glow over the entire dark world, the whole of life, and all people.
And it seemed to her that Christ himself, whom she had always loved with a perplexed love, with a complicated feeling in which fear was closely bound up with hope, and joyful emotion with melancholy, now came nearer to her, and was different from what he had been. His position was loftier, and he was more clearly visible to her. His aspect turned brighter and more cheerful. Now his eyes smiled on her with assurance, and with a live inward power, as if he had in reality risen to life for mankind, washed and vivified by the hot blood lavishly shed in his name. Yet those who had lost their blood modestly refrained from mentioning the name of the unfortunate friend of the people.
The mother always returned to Nikolay from her travels delightfully exhilarated by what she had seen and heard on the road, bold and satisfied with the work she had accomplished.
"It's good to go everywhere, and to see much," she said to Nikolay in the evening. "You understand how life is arranged. They brush the people aside and fling them to the edge. The people, hurt and wounded, keep moving about, even though they don't want to, and though they keep thinking: 'What for? Why do they drive us away? Why must we go hungry when there is so much of everything? And how much intellect there is everywhere! Nevertheless, we must remain in stupidity and darkness. And where is He, the merciful God, in whose eyes there are no rich nor poor, but all are children dear to His heart.' The people are gradually revolting against this life. They feel that untruth will stifle them if they don't take thought of themselves."
And in her leisure hours she sat down to the books, and again looked over the pictures, each time finding something new, ever widening the panorama of life before her eyes, unfolding the beauties of nature and the vigorous creative capacity of man. Nikolay often found her poring over the pictures. He would smile and always tell her something wonderful. Struck by man's daring, she would ask him incredulously, "Is it possible?"
Quietly, with unshakable confidence in the truth of his prophecies, Nikolay peered with his kind eyes through his glasses into the mother's face, and told her stories of the future.
"There is no measure to the desires of man; and his power is inexhaustible," he said. "But the world, after all, is still very slow in acquiring spiritual wealth. Because nowadays everyone desiring to free himself from dependence is compelled to hoard, not knowledge but money. However, when the people will have exterminated greed and will have freed themselves from the bondage of enslaving labor—"
She listened to him with strained attention. Though she but rarely understood the meaning of his words, yet the calm faith animating them penetrated her more and more deeply.
"There are extremely few free men in the world—that's its misfortune," he said.
This the mother understood. She knew men who had emancipated themselves from greed and evil; she understood that if there were more such people, the dark, incomprehensible, and awful face of life would become more kindly and simple, better and brighter.
"A man must perforce be cruel," said Nikolay dismally.
The mother nodded her head in confirmation. She recalled the sayings of the Little Russian.