Once Nikolay, usually so punctual, came from his work much later than was his wont, and said, excitedly rubbing his hands: "Do you know, Nilovna, to-day at the visiting hour one of our comrades disappeared from prison? But we have not succeeded in finding out who."
The mother's body swayed, overpowered by excitement. She sat down on a chair and asked with forced quiet:
"Maybe it's Pasha?"
"Possibly. But the question is how to find him, how to help him keep in concealment. Just now I was walking about the streets to see if I couldn't detect him. It was a stupid thing of me to do, but I had to do something. I'm going out again."
"I'll go, too," said the mother, rising.
"You go to Yegor, and see if he doesn't know anything about it," Nikolay suggested, and quickly walked away.
She threw a kerchief on her head, and, seized with hope, swiftly sped along the streets. Her eyes dimmed and her heart beat faster. Her head drooped; she saw nothing about her. It was hot. The mother lost breath, and when she reached the stairway leading to Yegor's quarters, she stopped, too faint to proceed farther. She turned around and uttered an amazed, low cry, closing her eyes for a second. It seemed to her that Nikolay Vyesovshchikov was standing at the gate, his hands thrust into his pockets, regarding her with a smile. But when she looked again nobody was there.
"I imagined I saw him," she said to herself, slowly walking up the steps and listening. She caught the sound of slow steps, and stopping at a turn in the stairway she bent over to look below; and again saw the face smiling up at her.
"Nikolay! Nikolay!" she whispered, and ran meet him. Her heart, stung by disappointment, ached for her son.
"Go, go!" he answered in an undertone, waving his hand.
She quickly ran up the stairs, walked into Yegor's room, and found him lying on the sofa. She gasped in a whisper:
"Nikolay is out of prison!"
"Which Nikolay?" asked Yegor, raising his head from the pillow. "There are two there."
"Vyesovshchikov. He's coming here!"
"Fine! But I can't rise to meet him."
Vyesovshchikov had already come into the room. He locked the door after him, and taking off his hat laughed quietly, stroking his hair. Yegor raised himself on his elbows.
"Please, signor, make yourself at home," he said with a nod.
Without saying anything, a broad smile on his face, Nikolay walked up to the mother and grasped her hand.
"If I had not seen you I might as well have returned to prison. I know nobody in the city. If I had gone to the suburbs they would have seized me at once. So I walked about, and thought what a fool I was—why had I escaped? Suddenly I see Nilovna running; off I am, after you."
"How did you make your escape?"
Vyesovshchikov sat down awkwardly on the edge of the sofa and pressed Yegor's hand.
"I don't know how," he said in an embarrassed manner. "Simply a chance. I was taking my airing, and the prisoners began to beat the overseer of the jail. There's one overseer there who was expelled from the gendarmerie for stealing. He's a spy, an informer, and tortures the life out of everybody. They gave him a drubbing, there was a hubbub, the overseers got frightened and blew their whistles. I noticed the gates open. I walked up and saw an open square and the city. It drew me forward and I went away without haste, as if in sleep. I walked a little and bethought myself: 'Where am I to go?' I looked around and the gates of the prison were already closed. I began to feel awkward. I was sorry for the comrades in general. It was stupid somehow. I hadn't thought of going away."
"Hm!" said Yegor. "Why, sir, you should have turned back, respectfully knocked at the prison door, and begged for admission. 'Excuse me,' you should have said, 'I was tempted; but here I am.'"
"Yes," continued Nikolay, smiling; "that would have been stupid, too, I understand. But for all that, it's not nice to the other comrades. I walk away without saying anything to anybody. Well, I kept on going, and I came across a child's funeral. I followed the hearse with my head bent down, looking at nobody. I sat down in the cemetery and enjoyed the fresh air. One thought came into my head——"
"One?" asked Yegor. Fetching breath, he added: "I suppose it won't feel crowded there."
Vyesovshchikov laughed without taking offense, and shook his head.
"Well, my brain's not so empty now as it used to be. And you, Yegor Ivanovich, still sick?"
"Each one does what he can. No one has a right to interfere with him." Yegor evaded an answer; he coughed hoarsely. "Continue."
"Then I went to a public museum. I walked about there, looked around, and kept thinking all the time: 'Where am I to go next?' I even began to get angry with myself. Besides, I got dreadfully hungry. I walked into the street and kept on trotting. I felt very down in the mouth. And then I saw police officers looking at everybody closely. 'Well,' thinks I to myself, 'with my face I'll arrive at God's judgment seat pretty soon.' Suddenly Nilovna came running opposite me. I turned about, and off I went after her. That's all."
"And I didn't even see you," said the mother guiltily.
"The comrades are probably uneasy about me. They must be wondering where I am," said Nikolay, scratching his head.
"Aren't you sorry for the officials? I guess they're uneasy, too," teased Yegor. He moved heavily on the sofa, and said seriously and solicitously: "However, jokes aside, we must hide you—by no means as easy as pleasant. If I could get up—" His breath gave out. He clapped his hand to his breast, and with a weak movement began to rub it.
"You've gotten very sick, Yegor Ivanovich," said Nikolay gloomily, drooping his head. The mother sighed and cast an anxious glance about the little, crowded room.
"That's my own affair. Granny, you ask about Pavel. No reason to feign indifference," said Yegor.
Vyesovshchikov smiled broadly.
"Pavel's all right; he's strong; he's like an elder among us; he converses with the officials and gives commands; he's respected. There's good reason for it."
Vlasova nodded her head, listening, and looked sidewise at the swollen, bluish face of Yegor, congealed to immobility, devoid of expression. It seemed strangely flat, only the eyes flashed with animation and cheerfulness.
"I wish you'd give me something to eat. I'm frightfully hungry," Nikolay cried out unexpectedly, and smiled sheepishly.
"Granny, there's bread on the shelf—give it to him. Then go out in the corridor, to the second door on the left, and knock. A woman will open it, and you'll tell her to snatch up everything she has to eat and come here."
"Why everything?" protested Nikolay.
"Don't get excited. It's not much—maybe nothing at all."
The mother went out and rapped at the door. She strained her ears for an answering sound, while thinking of Yegor with dread and grief. He was dying, she knew.
"Who is it?" somebody asked on the other side of the door.
"It's from Yegor Ivanovich," the mother whispered. "He asked you to come to him."
"I'll come at once," the woman answered without opening the door. The mother waited a moment, and knocked again. This time the door opened quickly, and a tall woman wearing glasses stepped out into the hall, rapidly tidying the ruffled sleeves of her waist. She asked the mother harshly:
"What do you want?"
"I'm from Yegor Ivanovich."
"Aha! Come! Oh, yes, I know you!" the woman exclaimed in a low voice. "How do you do? It's dark here."
Nilovna looked at her and remembered that this woman had come to Nikolay's home on rare occasions.
"All comrades!" flashed through her mind.
The woman compelled Nilovna to walk in front.
"Is he feeling bad?"
"Yes; he's lying down. He asked you to bring something to eat."
"Well, he doesn't need anything to eat."
When they walked into Yegor's room they were met by the words:
"I'm preparing to join my forefathers, my friend. Liudmila Vasilyevna, this man walked away from prison without the permission of the authorities—a bit of shameless audacity. Before all, feed him, then hide him somewhere for a day or two."
The woman nodded her head and looked carefully at the sick man's face.
"Stop your chattering, Yegor," she said sternly. "You know it's bad for you. You ought to have sent for me at once, as soon as they came. And I see you didn't take your medicine. What do you mean by such negligence? You yourself say it's easier for you to breathe after a dose. Comrade, come to my place. They'll soon call for Yegor from the hospital."
"So I'm to go to the hospital, after all?" asked Yegor, puckering up his face.
"Yes, I'll be there with you."
As she talked she adjusted the blanket on Yegor's breast, looked fixedly at Nikolay, and with her eyes measured the quantity of medicine in the bottle. She spoke evenly, not loud, but in a resonant voice. Her movements were easy, her face was pale, with large blue circles around her eyes. Her black eyebrows almost met at the bridge of the nose, deepening the setting of her dark, stern eyes. Her face did not please the mother; it seemed haughty in its sternness and immobility, and her eyes were rayless. She always spoke in a tone of command.
"We are going away," she continued. "I'll return soon. Give Yegor a tablespoon of this medicine."
"Very well," said the mother.
"And don't let him speak." She walked away, taking Nikolay with her.
"Admirable woman!" said Yegor with a sigh. "Magnificent woman! You ought to be working with her, granny. You see, she gets very much worn out. It's she that does all the printing for us."
"Don't speak. Here, you'd better take this medicine," the mother said gently.
He swallowed the medicine and continued, for some reason screwing up one eye:
"I'll die all the same, even if I don't speak."
He looked into the mother's face with his other eye, and his lips slowly formed themselves into a smile. The mother bent her head, a sharp sensation of pity bringing tears into her eyes.
"Never mind, granny. It's natural. The pleasure of living carries with it the obligation to die."
The mother put her hand on his, and again said softly:
"Keep quiet, please!"
He shut his eyes as if listening to the rattle in his breast, and went on stubbornly.
"It's senseless to keep quiet, granny. What'll I gain by keeping quiet? A few superfluous seconds of agony. And I'll lose the great pleasure of chattering with a good person. I think that in the next world there aren't such good people as here."
The mother uneasily interrupted him.
"The lady will come, and she'll scold me because you talk."
"She's no lady. She's a revolutionist, the daughter of a village scribe, a teacher. She is sure to scold you anyhow, granny. She scolds everybody always." And, slowly moving his lips with an effort, Yegor began to relate the life history of his neighbor. His eyes smiled. The mother saw that he was bantering her purposely. As she regarded his face, covered with a moist blueness, she thought distressfully that he was near to death.
Liudmila entered, and carefully closing the door after her, said, turning to Vlasova:
"Your friend ought to change his clothes without fail, and leave here as soon as possible. So go at once; get him some clothes, and bring them here. I'm sorry Sofya's not here. Hiding people is her specialty."
"She's coming to-morrow," remarked Vlasova, throwing her shawl over her shoulders. Every time she was given a commission the strong desire seized her to accomplish it promptly and well, and she was unable to think of anything but the task before her. Now, lowering her brows with an air of preoccupation, she asked zealously:
"How should we dress him, do you think?"
"It's all the same. It's night, you know."
"At night it's worse. There are less people on the street, and the police spy around more; and, you know, he's rather awkward."
Yegor laughed hoarsely.
"You're a young girl yet, granny."
"May I visit you in the hospital?"
He nodded his head, coughing. Liudmila glanced at the mother with her dark eyes and suggested:
"Do you want to take turns with me in attending him? Yes? Very well. And now go quickly."
She vigorously seized Vlasova by the hand, with perfect good nature, however, and led her out of the door.
"You mustn't be offended," she said softly, "because I dismiss you so abruptly. I know it's rude; but it's harmful for him to speak, and I still have hopes of his recovery." She pressed her hands together until the bones cracked. Her eyelids drooped wearily over her eyes.
The explanation disturbed the mother. She murmured:
"Don't talk that way. The idea! Who thought of rudeness? I'm going; good-by."
"Look out for the spies!" whispered the woman.
"I know," the mother answered with some pride.
She stopped for a minute outside the gate to look around sharply under the pretext of adjusting her kerchief. She was already able to distinguish spies in a street crowd almost immediately. She recognized the exaggerated carelessness of their gait, their strained attempt to be free in their gestures, the expression of tedium on their faces, the wary, guilty glimmer of their restless, unpleasantly sharp gaze badly hidden behind their feigned candor.
This time she did not notice any familiar faces, and walked along the street without hastening. She took a cab, and gave orders to be driven to the market place. When buying the clothes for Nikolay she bargained vigorously with the salespeople, all the while scolding at her drunken husband whom she had to dress anew every month. The tradespeople paid little attention to her talk, but she herself was greatly pleased with her ruse. On the road she had calculated that the police would, of course, understand the necessity for Nikolay to change his clothes, and would send spies to the market. With such naive precautions, she returned to Yegor's quarters; then she had to escort Nikolay to the outskirts of the city. They took different sides of the street, and it was amusing to the mother to see how Vyesovshchikov strode along heavily, with bent head, his legs getting tangled in the long flaps of his russet-colored coat, his hat falling over his nose. In one of the deserted streets, Sashenka met them, and the mother, taking leave of Vyesovshchikov with a nod of her head, turned toward home with a sigh of relief.
"And Pasha is in prison with Andriusha!" she thought sadly.
Nikolay met her with an anxious exclamation:
"You know that Yegor is in a very bad way, very bad! He was taken to the hospital. Liudmila was here. She asks you to come to her there."
"At the hospital?"
Adjusting his eyeglasses with a nervous gesture, Nikolay helped her on with her jacket and pressed her hand in a dry, hot grasp. His voice was low and tremulous. "Yes. Take this package with you. Have you disposed of Vyesovshchikov all right?"
"Yes, all right."
"I'll come to Yegor, too!"
The mother's head was in a whirl with fatigue, and Nikolay's emotion aroused in her a sad premonition of the drama's end.
"So he's dying—he's dying!" The dark thought knocked at her brain heavily and dully.
But when she entered the bright, tidy little room of the hospital and saw Yegor sitting on the pallet propped against the wide bosom of the pillow, and heard him laugh with zest, she was at once relieved. She paused at the door, smiling, and listened to Yegor talk with the physician in a hoarse but lively voice.
"A cure is a reform."
"Don't talk nonsense!" the physician cried officiously in a thin voice.
"And I'm a revolutionist! I detest reforms!"
The physician, thoughtfully pulling his beard, felt the dropsical swelling on Yegor's face. The mother knew him well. He was Ivan Danilovich, one of the close comrades of Nikolay. She walked up to Yegor, who thrust forth his tongue by way of welcome to her. The physician turned around.
"Ah, Nilovna! How are you? Sit down. What have you in your hand?"
"It must be books."
"He mustn't read."
"The doctor wants to make an idiot of me," Yegor complained.
"Keep quiet!" the physician commanded, and began to write in a little book.
The short, heavy breaths, accompanied by rattling in his throat, fairly tore themselves from Yegor's breast, and his face became covered with thin perspiration. Slowly raising his swollen hand, he wiped his forehead with the palm. The strange immobility of his swollen cheeks denaturalized his broad, good face, all the features of which disappeared under the dead, bluish mask. Only his eyes, deeply sunk beneath the swellings, looked out clear and smiling benevolently.
"Oh, Science, I'm tired! May I lie down?"
"No, you mayn't."
"But I'm going to lie down after you go."
"Nilovna, please don't let him. It's bad for him."
The mother nodded. The physician hurried off with short steps. Yegor threw back his head, closed his eyes and sank into a torpor, motionless save for the twitching of his fingers. The white walls of the little room seemed to radiate a dry coldness and a pale, faceless sadness. Through the large window peered the tufted tops of the lime trees, amid whose dark, dusty foliage yellow stains were blazing, the cold touches of approaching autumn.
"Death is coming to me slowly, reluctantly," said Yegor without moving and without opening his eyes. "He seems to be a little sorry for me. I was such a fine, sociable chap."
"You'd better keep quiet, Yegor Ivanovich!" the mother bade, quietly stroking his hand.
"Wait, granny, I'll be silent soon."
Losing breath every once in a while, enunciating the words with a mighty effort, he continued his talk, interrupted by long spells of faintness.
"It's splendid to have you with me. It's pleasant to see your face, granny, and your eyes so alert, and your naivete. 'How will it end?' I ask myself. It's sad to think that the prison, exile, and all sorts of vile outrages await you as everybody else. Are you afraid of prison?"
"No," answered the mother softly.
"But after all the prison is a mean place. It's the prison that knocked me up. To tell you the truth, I don't want to die."
"Maybe you won't die yet," the mother was about to say, but a look at his face froze the words on her lips.
"If I hadn't gotten sick I could have worked yet, not badly; but if you can't work there's nothing to live for, and it's stupid to live."
"That's true, but it's no consolation." Andrey's words flashed into the mother's mind, and she heaved a deep sigh. She was greatly fatigued by the day, and hungry. The monotonous, humid, hoarse whisper of the sick man filled the room and crept helplessly along the smooth, cold, shining walls. At the windows the dark tops of the lime trees trembled quietly. It was growing dusk, and Yegor's face on the pillow turned dark.
"How bad I feel," he said. He closed his eyes and became silent. The mother listened to his breathing, looked around, and sat for a few minutes motionless, seized by a cold sensation of sadness. Finally she dozed off.
The muffled sound of a door being carefully shut awakened her, and she saw the kind, open eyes of Yegor.
"I fell asleep; excuse me," she said quietly.
"And you excuse me," he answered, also quietly. At the door was heard a rustle and Liudmila's voice.
"They sit in the darkness and whisper. Where is the knob?"
The room trembled and suddenly became filled with a white, unfriendly light. In the middle of the room stood Liudmila, all black, tall, straight, and serious. Yegor transferred his glance to her, and making a great effort to move his body, raised his hand to his breast.
"What's the matter?" exclaimed Liudmila, running up to him. He looked at the mother with fixed eyes, and now they seemed large and strangely bright.
"Wait!" he whispered.
Opening his mouth wide, he raised his head and stretched his hand forward. The mother carefully held it up and caught her breath as she looked into his face. With a convulsive and powerful movement of his neck he flung his head back, and said aloud:
"Give me air!"
A quiver ran through his body; his head dropped limply on his shoulder, and in his wide open eyes the cold light of the lamp burning over the bed was reflected dully.
"My darling!" whispered the mother, firmly pressing his hand, which suddenly grew heavy.
Liudmila slowly walked away from the bed, stopped at the window and stared into space.
"He's dead!" she said in an unusually loud voice unfamiliar to Vlasova. She bent down, put her elbows on the window sill, and repeated in dry, startled tones: "He's dead! He died calmly, like a man, without complaint." And suddenly, as if struck a blow on the head, she dropped faintly on her knees, covered her face, and gave vent to dull, stifled groans.