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.
"I have abandoned my family?" she repeated, bending her head down. "That's nothing. My father is a stupid, coarse man—my brother also—and a drunkard, besides. My oldest sister—unhappy, wretched thing—married a man much older than herself, very rich, a bore and greedy. But my mother I am sorry for! She's a simple woman like you, a beaten-down, frightened creature, so tiny, like a little mouse—she runs so quickly and is afraid of everybody. And sometimes I want to see her so—my mother!"
"My poor thing!" said the mother sadly, shaking her head.
The girl quickly threw up her head and cried out:
"Oh, no! At times I feel such joy, such happiness!"
Her face paled and her blue eyes gleamed. Placing her hands on the mother's shoulders she said with a deep voice issuing from her very heart, quietly as if in an ecstasy:
"If you knew—if you but understood what a great, joyous work we are doing! You will come to feel it!" she exclaimed with conviction.
A feeling akin to envy touched the heart of the mother. Rising from the floor she said plaintively:
"I am too old for that—ignorant and old."
Pavel spoke more and more often and at greater length, discussed more and more hotly, and—grew thinner and thinner. It seemed to his mother that when he spoke to Natasha or looked at her his eyes turned softer, his voice sounded fonder, and his entire bearing became simpler.
"Heaven grant!" she thought; and imagining Natasha as her daughter-in-law, she smiled inwardly.
Whenever at the meetings the disputes waxed too hot and stormy, the Little Russian stood up, and rocking himself to and fro like the tongue of a bell, he spoke in his sonorous, resonant voice simple and good words which allayed their excitement and recalled them to their purpose. Vyesovshchikov always kept hurrying everybody on somewhere. He and the red-haired youth called Samoylov were the first to begin all disputes. On their side were always Ivan Bukin, with the round head and the white eyebrows and lashes, who looked as if he had been hung out to dry, or washed out with lye; and the curly-headed, lofty-browed Fedya Mazin. Modest Yakob Somov, always smoothly combed and clean, spoke little and briefly, with a quiet, serious voice, and always took sides with Pavel and the Little Russian.
Sometimes, instead of Natasha, Alexey Ivanovich, a native of some remote government, came from the city. He wore eyeglasses, his beard was shiny, and he spoke with a peculiar singing voice. He produced the impression of a stranger from a far-distant land. He spoke about simple matters—about family life, about children, about commerce, the police, the price of bread and meat—about everything by which people live from day to day; and in everything he discovered fraud, confusion, and stupidity, sometimes setting these matters in a humorous light, but always showing their decided disadvantage to the people.
To the mother, too, it seemed that he had come from far away, from another country, where all the people lived a simple, honest, easy life; and that here everything was strange to him, that he could not get accustomed to this life and accept it as inevitable, that it displeased him, and that it aroused in him a calm determination to rearrange it after his own model. His face was yellowish, with thin, radiate wrinkles around his eyes, his voice low, and his hands always warm. In greeting the mother he would enfold her entire hand in his long, powerful fingers, and after such a vigorous hand clasp she felt more at ease and lighter of heart.
Other people came from the city, oftenest among them a tall, well-built young girl with large eyes set in a thin, pale face. She was called Sashenka. There was something manly in her walk and movements; she knit her thick, dark eyebrows in a frown, and when she spoke the thin nostrils of her straight nose quivered.
She was the first to say, "We are socialists!" Her voice when she said it was loud and strident.
When the mother heard this word, she stared in dumb fright into the girl's face. But Sashenka, half closing her eyes, said sternly and resolutely: "We must give up all our forces to the cause of the regeneration of life; we must realize that we will receive no recompense."
The mother understood that the socialists had killed the Czar. It had happened in the days of her youth; and people had then said that the landlords, wishing to revenge themselves on the Czar for liberating the peasant serfs, had vowed not to cut their hair until the Czar should be killed. These were the persons who had been called socialists. And now she could not understand why it was that her son and his friends were socialists.
When they had all departed, she asked Pavel:
"Pavlusha, are you a socialist?"
"Yes," he said, standing before her, straight and stalwart as always. "Why?"
The mother heaved a heavy sigh, and lowering her eyes, said:
"So, Pavlusha? Why, they are against the Czar; they killed one."
Pavel walked up and down the room, ran his hand across his face, and, smiling, said:
"We don't need to do that!"
He spoke to her for a long while in a low, serious voice. She looked into his face and thought:
"He will do nothing bad; he is incapable of doing bad!"
And thereafter the terrible word was repeated with increasing frequency; its sharpness wore off, and it became as familiar to her ear as scores of other words unintelligible to her. But Sashenka did not please her, and when she came the mother felt troubled and ill at ease.
Once she said to the Little Russian, with an expression of dissatisfaction about the mouth:
"What a stern person this Sashenka is! Flings her commands around!—You must do this and you must do that!"
The Little Russian laughed aloud.
"Well said, mother! You struck the nail right on the head! Hey, Pavel?"
And with a wink to the mother, he said with a jovial gleam in his eyes:
"You can't drain the blue blood out of a person even with a pump!"
Pavel remarked dryly:
"She is a good woman!" His face glowered.
"And that's true, too!" the Little Russian corroborated. "Only she does not understand that she ought to——"
They started up an argument about something the mother did not understand. The mother noticed, also, that Sashenka was most stern with Pavel, and that sometimes she even scolded him. Pavel smiled, was silent, and looked in the girl's face with that soft look he had formerly given Natasha. This likewise displeased the mother.
The gatherings increased in number, and began to be held twice a week; and when the mother observed with what avidity the young people listened to the speeches of her son and the Little Russian, to the interesting stories of Sashenka, Natasha, Alexey Ivanovich, and the other people from the city, she forgot her fears and shook her head sadly as she recalled the days of her youth.
Sometimes they sang songs, the simple, familiar melodies, aloud and merrily. But often they sang new songs, the words and music in perfect accord, sad and quaint in tune. These they sang in an undertone, pensively and seriously as church hymns are chanted. Their faces grew pale, yet hot, and a mighty force made itself felt in their ringing words.
"It is time for us to sing these songs in the street," said Vyesovshchikov somberly.
And sometimes the mother was struck by the spirit of lively, boisterous hilarity that took sudden possession of them. It was incomprehensible to her. It usually happened on the evenings when they read in the papers about the working people in other countries. Then their eyes sparkled with bold, animated joy; they became strangely, childishly happy; the room rang with merry peals of laughter, and they struck one another on the shoulder affectionately.
"Capital fellows, our comrades the French!" cried some one, as if intoxicated with his own mirth.
"Long live our comrades, the workingmen of Italy!" they shouted another time.
And sending these calls into the remote distance to friends who did not know them, who could not have understood their language, they seemed to feel confident that these people unknown to them heard and comprehended their enthusiasm and their ecstasy.
The Little Russian spoke, his eyes beaming, his love larger than the love of the others:
"Comrades, it would be well to write to them over there! Let them know that they have friends living in far-away Russia, workingmen who confess and believe in the same religion as they, comrades who pursue the same aims as they, and who rejoice in their victories!"
And all, with smiles on their faces dreamily spoke at length of the Germans, the Italians, the Englishmen, and the Swedes, of the working people of all countries, as of their friends, as of people near to their hearts, whom without seeing they loved and respected, whose joys they shared, whose pain they felt.
In the small room a vast feeling was born of the universal kinship of the workers of the world, at the same time its masters and its slaves, who had already been freed from the bondage of prejudice and who felt themselves the new masters of life. This feeling blended all into a single soul; it moved the mother, and, although inaccessible to her, it straightened and emboldened her, as it were, with its force, with its joys, with its triumphant, youthful vigor, intoxicating, caressing, full of hope.
"What queer people you are!" said the mother to the Little Russian one day. "All are your comrades—the Armenians and the Jews and the Austrians. You speak about all as of your friends; you grieve for all, and you rejoice for all!"
"For all, mother dear, for all! The world is ours! The world is for the workers! For us there is no nation, no race. For us there are only comrades and foes. All the workingmen are our comrades; all the rich, all the authorities are our foes. When you see how numerous we workingmen are, how tremendous the power of the spirit in us, then your heart is seized with such joy, such happiness, such a great holiday sings in your bosom! And, mother, the Frenchman and the German feel the same way when they look upon life, and the Italian also. We are all children of one mother—the great, invincible idea of the brotherhood of the workers of all countries over all the earth. This idea grows, it warms us like the sun; it is a second sun in the heaven of justice, and this heaven resides in the workingman's heart. Whoever he be, whatever his name, a socialist is our brother in spirit now and always, and through all the ages forever and ever!"
This intoxicated and childish joy, this bright and firm faith came over the company more and more frequently; and it grew ever stronger, ever mightier.
And when the mother saw this, she felt that in very truth a great dazzling light had been born into the world like the sun in the sky and visible to her eyes.
On occasions when his father had stolen something again and was in prison, Nikolay would announce to his comrades: "Now we can hold our meetings at our house. The police will think us thieves, and they love thieves!"
Almost every evening after work one of Pavel's comrades came to his house, read with him, and copied something from the books. So greatly occupied were they that they hardly even took the time to wash. They ate their supper and drank tea with the books in their hands; and their talks became less and less intelligible to the mother.
"We must have a newspaper!" Pavel said frequently.
Life grew ever more hurried and feverish; there was a constant rushing from house to house, a passing from one book to another, like the flirting of bees from flower to flower.
"They are talking about us!" said Vyesovshchikov once. "We must get away soon."
"What's a quail for but to be caught in the snare?" retorted the Little Russian.
Vlasova liked the Little Russian more and more. When he called her "mother," it was like a child's hand patting her on the cheek. On Sunday, if Pavel had no time, he chopped wood for her; once he came with a board on his shoulder, and quickly and skillfully replaced the rotten step on the porch. Another time he repaired the tottering fence with just as little ado. He whistled as he worked. It was a beautifully sad and wistful whistle.
Once the mother said to the son:
"Suppose we take the Little Russian in as a boarder. It will be better for both of you. You won't have to run to each other so much!"
"Why need you trouble and crowd yourself?" asked Pavel, shrugging his shoulders.
"There you have it! All my life I've had trouble for I don't know what. For a good person it's worth the while."
"Do as you please. If he comes I'll be glad."
And the Little Russian moved into their home.