The little old gray house of the Vlasovs attracted the attention of the village more and more; and although there was much suspicious chariness and unconscious hostility in this notice, yet at the same time a confiding curiosity grew up also. Now and then some one would come over, and looking carefully about him would say to Pavel: "Well, brother, you are reading books here, and you know the laws. Explain to me, then——"
And he would tell Pavel about some injustice of the police or the factory administration. In complicated cases Pavel would give the man a note to a lawyer friend in the city, and when he could, he would explain the case himself.
Gradually people began to look with respect upon this young, serious man, who spoke about everything simply and boldly, and almost never laughed, who looked at everybody and listened to everybody with an attention which searched stubbornly into every circumstance, and always found a certain general and endless thread binding people together by a thousand tightly drawn knots.
Vlasova saw how her son had grown up; she strove to understand his work, and when she succeeded, she rejoiced with a childlike joy.
Pavel rose particularly in the esteem of the people after the appearance of his story about the "Muddy Penny."
Back of the factory, almost encircling it with a ring of putrescence, stretched a vast marsh grown over with fir trees and birches. In the summer it was covered with thick yellow and green scum, and swarms of mosquitoes flew from it over the village, spreading fever in their course. The marsh belonged to the factory, and the new manager, wishing to extract profit from it, conceived the plan of draining it and incidentally gathering in a fine harvest of peat. Representing to the workingmen how much this measure would contribute to the sanitation of the locality and the improvement of the general condition of all, the manager gave orders to deduct a kopeck from every ruble of their earnings, in order to cover the expense of draining the marsh. The workingmen rebelled; they especially resented the fact that the office clerks were exempted from paying the new tax.
Pavel was ill on the Saturday when posters were hung up announcing the manager's order in regard to the toll. He had not gone to work and he knew nothing about it. The next day, after mass, a dapper old man, the smelter Sizov, and the tall, vicious-looking locksmith Makhotin, came to him and told him of the manager's decision.
"A few of us older ones got together," said Sizov, speaking sedately, "talked the matter over, and our comrades, you see, sent us over to you, as you are a knowing man among us. Is there such a law as gives our manager the right to make war upon mosquitoes with our kopecks?"
"Think!" said Makhotin, with a glimmer in his narrow eyes. "Three years ago these sharpers collected a tax to build a bath house. Three thousand eight hundred rubles is what they gathered in. Where are those rubles? And where is the bath house?"
Pavel explained the injustice of the tax, and the obvious advantage of such a procedure to the factory owners; and both of his visitors went away in a surly mood.
The mother, who had gone with them to the door, said, laughing:
"Now, Pasha, the old people have also begun to come to seek wisdom from you."
Without replying, Pavel sat down at the table with a busy air and began to write. In a few minutes he said to her: "Please go to the city immediately and deliver this note."
"Is it dangerous?" she asked.
"Yes! A newspaper is being published for us down there! That 'Muddy Penny' story must go into the next issue."
"I'll go at once," she replied, beginning hurriedly to put on her wraps.
This was the first commission her son had given her. She was happy that he spoke to her so openly about the matter, and that she might be useful to him in his work.
"I understand all about it, Pasha," she said. "It's a piece of robbery. What's the name of the man? Yegor Ivanovich?"
"Yes," said Pavel, smiling kindly.
She returned late in the evening, exhausted but contented.
"I saw Sashenka," she told her son. "She sends you her regards. And this Yegor Ivanovich is such a simple fellow, such a joker! He speaks so comically."
"I'm glad you like them," said Pavel softly.
"They are simple people, Pasha. It's good when people are simple. And they all respect you."
Again, Monday, Pavel did not go to work. His head ached. But at dinner time Fedya Mazin came running in, excited, out of breath, happy, and tired.
"Come! The whole factory has arisen! They've sent for you. Sizov and Makhotin say you can explain better than anybody else. My! What a hullabaloo!"
Pavel began to dress himself silently.
"A crowd of women are gathered there; they are screaming!"
"I'll go, too," declared the mother. "You're not well, and—what are they doing? I'm going, too."
"Come," Pavel said briefly.
They walked along the street quickly and silently. The mother panted with the exertion of the rapid gait and her excitement. She felt that something big was happening. At the factory gates a throng of women were discussing the affair in shrill voices. When the three pushed into the yard, they found themselves in the thick of a crowd buzzing and humming in excitement. The mother saw that all heads were turned in the same direction, toward the blacksmith's wall, where Sizov, Makhotin, Vyalov, and five or six influential, solid workingmen were standing on a high pile of old iron heaped on the red brick paving of the court, and waving their hands.
"Vlasov is coming!" somebody shouted.
"Vlasov? Bring him along!"
Pavel was seized and pushed forward, and the mother was left alone.
"Silence!" came the shout from various directions. Near by the even voice of Rybin was heard:
"We must make a stand, not for the kopeck, but for justice. What is dear to us is not our kopeck, because it's no rounder than any other kopeck; it's only heavier; there's more human blood in it than in the manager's ruble. That's the truth!"
The words fell forcibly on the crowd and stirred the men to hot responses:
"That's right! Good, Rybin!"
"Silence! The devil take you!"
The voices mingled in a confused uproar, drowning the ponderous whir of the machinery, the sharp snorts of the steam, and the flapping of the leather belts. From all sides people came running, waving their hands; they fell into arguments, and excited one another with burning, stinging words. The irritation that had found no vent, that had always lain dormant in tired breasts, had awakened, demanded an outlet, and burst from their mouths in a volley of words. It soared into the air like a great bird spreading its motley wings ever wider and wider, clutching people and dragging them after it, and striking them against one another. It lived anew, transformed into flaming wrath. A cloud of dust and soot hung over the crowd; their faces were all afire, and black drops of sweat trickled down their cheeks. Their eyes gleamed from darkened countenances; their teeth glistened.
Pavel appeared on the spot where Sizov and Makhotin were standing, and his voice rang out:
The mother saw that his face paled and his lips trembled; she involuntarily pushed forward, shoving her way through the crowd.
"Where are you going, old woman?"
She heard the angry question, and the people pushed her, but she would not stop, thrusting the crowd aside with her shoulders and elbows. She slowly forced her way nearer to her son, yielding to the desire to stand by his side. When Pavel had thrown out the word to which he was wont to attach a deep and significant meaning, his throat contracted in a sharp spasm of the joy of fight. He was seized with an invincible desire to give himself up to the strength of his faith; to throw his heart to the people. His heart kindled with the dream of truth.
"Comrades!" he repeated, extracting power and rapture from the word. "We are the people who build churches and factories, forge chains and coin money, make toys and machines. We are that living force which feeds and amuses the world from the cradle to the grave."
"There!" Rybin exclaimed.
"Always and everywhere we are first in work but last in life. Who cares for us? Who wishes us good? Who regards us as human beings? No one!"
"No one!" echoed from the crowd.
Pavel, mastering himself, began to talk more simply and calmly; the crowd slowly drew about him, blending into one dark, thick, thousand-headed body. It looked into his face with hundreds of attentive eyes; it sucked in his words in silent, strained attention.
"We will not attain to a better life until we feel ourselves as comrades, as one family of friends firmly bound together by one desire—the desire to fight for our rights."
"Get down to business!" somebody standing near the mother shouted rudely.
"Don't interrupt!" "Shut up!" The two muffled exclamations were heard in different places. The soot-covered faces frowned in sulky incredulity; scores of eyes looked into Pavel's face thoughtfully and seriously.
"A socialist, but no fool!" somebody observed.
"I say, he does speak boldly!" said a tall, crippled workingman, tapping the mother on the shoulder.
"It is time, comrades, to take a stand against the greedy power that lives by our labor. It is time to defend ourselves; we must all understand that no one except ourselves will help us. One for all and all for one—this is our law, if we want to crush the foe!"
"He's right, boys!" Makhotin shouted. "Listen to the truth!" And, with a broad sweep of his arm, he shook his fist in the air.
"We must call out the manager at once," said Pavel. "We must ask him."
As if struck by a tornado, the crowd rocked to and fro; scores of voices shouted:
"The manager! The manager! Let him come! Let him explain!"
"Send delegates for him! Bring him here!"
"No, don't; it's not necessary!"
The mother pushed her way to the front and looked up at her son. She was filled with pride. Her son stood among the old, respected workingmen; all listened to him and agreed with him! She was pleased that he was so calm and talked so simply; not angrily, not swearing, like the others. Broken exclamations, wrathful words and oaths descended like hail on iron. Pavel looked down on the people from his elevation, and with wide-open eyes seemed to be seeking something among them.
"Let Sizov speak!"
"Rybin! He has a terrible tongue!"
Finally Sizov, Rybin, and Pavel were chosen for the interview with the manager. When just about to send for the manager, suddenly low exclamations were heard in the crowd:
"Here he comes himself!"
The crowd opened to make way for a tall, spare man with a pointed beard, an elongated face and blinking eyes.
"Permit me," he said, as he pushed the people aside with a short motion of his hand, without touching them. With the experienced look of a ruler of people, he scanned the workingmen's faces with a searching gaze. They took their hats off and bowed to him. He walked past them without acknowledging their greetings. His presence silenced and confused the crowd, and evoked embarrassed smiles and low exclamations, as of repentant children who had already come to regret their prank.
Now he passed, by the mother, casting a stern glance at her face, and stopped before the pile of iron. Somebody from above extended a hand to him; he did not take it, but with an easy, powerful movement of his body he clambered up and stationed himself in front of Pavel and Sizov. Looking around the silent crowd, he asked:
"What's the meaning of this crowd? Why have you dropped your work?"
For a few seconds silence reigned. Sizov waved his cap in the air, shrugged his shoulders, and dropped his head.
"I am asking you a question!" continued the manager.
Pavel moved alongside of him and said in a low voice, pointing to Sizov and Rybin:
"We three are authorized by all the comrades to ask you to revoke your order about the kopeck discount."
"Why?" asked the manager, without looking at Pavel.
"We do not consider such a tax just!" Pavel replied loudly.
"So, in my plan to drain the marsh you see only a desire to exploit the workingmen and not a desire to better their conditions; is that it?"
"Yes!" Pavel replied.
"And you, also?" the manager asked Rybin.
"The very same!"
"How about you, my worthy friend?" The manager turned to Sizov.
"I, too, want to ask you to let us keep our kopecks." And drooping his head again, Sizov smiled guiltily. The manager slowly bent his look upon the crowd again, shrugged his shoulders, and then, regarding Pavel searchingly, observed:
"You appear to be a fairly intelligent man. Do you not understand the usefulness of this measure?"
Pavel replied loudly:
"If the factory should drain the marsh at its own expense, we would all understand it!"
"This factory is not in the philanthropy business!" remarked the manager dryly. "I order you all to start work at once!"
And he began to descend, cautiously feeling the iron with his feet, and without looking at anyone.
A dissatisfied hum was heard in the crowd.
"What!" asked the manager, halting.
All were silent; then from the distance came a solitary voice:
"You go to work yourself!"
"If in fifteen minutes you do not start work, I'll order every single one of you to be discharged!" the manager announced dryly and distinctly.
He again proceeded through the crowd, but now an indistinct murmur followed him, and the shouting grew louder as his figure receded.
"Speak to him!"
"That's what you call justice! Worse luck!"
Some turned to Pavel and shouted:
"Say, you great lawyer, you, what's to be done now? You talked and talked, but the moment he came it all went up in the air!"
"Well, Vlasov, what now?"
When the shouts became more insistent, Pavel raised his hand and said:
"Comrades, I propose that we quit work until he gives up that kopeck!"
Excited voices burst out:
"He thinks we're fools!"
"We ought to do it!"
"For one kopeck?"
"Why not? Why not strike?"
"We'll all be discharged!"
"And who is going to do the work?"
"There are others!"
"Every year I would have to give three rubles and sixty kopecks to the mosquitoes!"
"All of us would have to give it!"
Pavel walked down and stood at the side of his mother. No one paid any attention to him now. They were all yelling and debating hotly with one another.
"You cannot get them to strike!" said Rybin, coming up to Pavel. "Greedy as these people are for a penny, they are too cowardly. You may, perhaps, induce about three hundred of them to follow you, no more. It's a heap of dung you won't lift with one toss of the pitchfork, I tell you!"
Pavel was silent. In front of him the huge black face of the crowd was rocking wildly, and fixed on him an importunate stare. His heart beat in alarm. It seemed to him as if all the words he had spoken vanished in the crowd without leaving any trace, like scattered drops of rain falling on parched soil. One after the other, workmen approached him praising his speech, but doubting the success of a strike, and complaining how little the people understood their own interests and realized their own strength.
Pavel had a sense of injury and disappointment as to his own power. His head ached; he felt desolate. Hitherto, whenever he pictured the triumph of his truth, he wanted to cry with the delight that seized his heart. But here he had spoken his truth to the people, and behold! when clothed in words it appeared so pale, so powerless, so incapable of affecting anyone. He blamed himself; it seemed to him that he had concealed his dream in a poor, disfiguring garment, and no one could, therefore, detect its beauty.
He went home, tired and moody. He was followed by his mother and Sizov, while Rybin walked alongside, buzzing into his ear:
"You speak well, but you don't speak to the heart! That's the trouble! The spark must be thrown into the heart, into its very depths!"
"It's time we lived and were guided by reason," Pavel said in a low voice.
"The boot does not fit the foot; it's too thin and narrow! The foot won't get in! And if it does, it will wear the boot out mighty quick. That is the trouble."
Sizov, meanwhile, talked to the mother.
"It's time for us old folks to get into our graves. Nilovna! A new people is coming. What sort of a life have we lived? We crawled on our knees, and always crouched on the ground! But here are the new people. They have either come to their senses, or else are blundering worse than we; but they are not like us, anyway. Just look at those youngsters talking to the manager as to their equal! Yes, ma'am! Oh, if only my son Matvey were alive! Good-by, Pavel Vlasov! You stand up for the people all right, brother. God grant you his favor! Perhaps you'll find a way out. God grant it!" And he walked away.
"Yes, you may as well die straight off!" murmured Rybin. "You are no men, now. You are only putty—good to fill cracks with, that's all! Did you see, Pavel, who it was that shouted to make you a delegate? It was those who call you socialist—agitator—yes!—thinking you'd be discharged, and it would serve you right!"
"They are right, according to their lights!" said Pavel.
"So are wolves when they tear one another to pieces!" Rybin's face was sullen, his voice unusually tremulous.
The whole day Pavel felt ill at ease, as if he had lost something, he did not know what, and anticipated a further loss.
At night when the mother was asleep and he was reading in bed, gendarmes appeared and began to search everywhere—in the yard, in the attic. They were sullen; the yellow-faced officer conducted himself as on the first occasion, insultingly, derisively, delighting in abuse, endeavoring to cut down to the very heart. The mother, in a corner, maintained silence, never removing her eyes from her son's face. He made every effort not to betray his emotion; but whenever the officer laughed, his fingers twitched strangely, and the old woman felt how hard it was for him not to reply, and to bear the jesting. This time the affair was not so terrorizing to her as at the first search. She felt a greater hatred to these gray, spurred night callers, and her hatred swallowed up her alarm.
Pavel managed to whisper:
"They'll arrest me."
Inclining her head, she quietly replied:
She did understand—they would put him in jail for what he had said to the workingmen that day. But since all agreed with what he had said, and all ought to stand up for him, he would not be detained long.
She longed to embrace him and cry over him; but there stood the officer, watching her with a malevolent squint of his eyes. His lips trembled, his mustache twitched. It seemed to Vlasova that the officer was but waiting for her tears, complaints, and supplications. With a supreme effort endeavoring to say as little as possible, she pressed her son's hand, and holding her breath said slowly, in a low tone:
"Good-by, Pasha. Did you take everything you need?"
"Everything. Don't worry!"
"Christ be with you!"