At noon, calmly and in a businesslike way she put the books around her bosom, and so skillfully and snugly that Yegor announced, smacking his lips with satisfaction:
“Sehr gut! as the German says when he has drunk a keg of beer. Literature has not changed you, granny. You still remain the good, tall, portly, elderly woman. May all the numberless gods grant you their blessings on your enterprise!”
Within half an hour she stood at the factory gate, bent with the weight of her burden, calm and assured. Two guards, irritated by the oaths and raillery of the workingmen, examined all who entered the gate, handling them roughly and swearing at them. A policeman and a thin-legged man with a red face and alert eyes stood at one side. The mother, shifting the rod resting on her shoulders, with a pail suspended from either end of it, watched the man from the corner of her eye. She divined that he was a spy.
A tall, curly-headed fellow with his hat thrown back over his neck, cried to the guardsmen who searched him:
“Search the head and not the pockets, you devils!”
“There is nothing but lice on your head,” retorted one of the guardsmen.
“Catching lice is an occupation more suited to you than hunting human game!” rejoined the workman. The spy scanned him with a rapid glance.
“Will you let me in?” asked the mother. “See, I’m bent double with my heavy load. My back is almost breaking.”
“Go in! Go in!” cried the guard sullenly. “She comes with arguments, too.”
The mother walked to her place, set her pails on the ground, and wiping the perspiration from her face looked around her.
The Gusev brothers, the locksmiths, instantly came up to her, and the older of them, Vasily, asked aloud, knitting his eyebrows:
“Got any pirogs?”
“I’ll bring them to-morrow,” she answered.
This was the password agreed upon. The faces of the brothers brightened. Ivan, unable to restrain himself, exclaimed:
“Oh, you jewel of a mother!”
Vasily squatted down on his heels, looked into the pot, and a bundle of books disappeared into his bosom.
“Ivan!” he said aloud. “Let’s not go home, let’s get our dinner here from her!” And he quickly shoved the books into the legs of his boots. “We must give our new peddler a lift, don’t you think so?”
“Yes, indeed!” Ivan assented, and laughed aloud.
The mother looked carefully about her, and called out:
“Sour cabbage soup! Hot vermicelli soup! Roast meat!”
Then deftly and secretly taking out one package of books after the other, she shoved them into the hands of the brothers. Each time a bundle disappeared from her hands, the sickly, sneering face of the officer of gendarmes flashed up before her like a yellow stain, like the flame of a match in a dark room, and she said to him in her mind, with a feeling of malicious pleasure:
“Take this, sir!” And when she handed over the last package she added with an air of satisfaction: “And here is some more, take it!”
Workmen came up to her with cups in their hands, and when they were near Ivan and Vasily, they began to laugh aloud. The mother calmly suspended the transfer of the books, and poured sour soup and vermicelli soup, while the Gusevs joked her.
“How cleverly Nilovna does her work!”
“Necessity drives one even to catching mice,” remarked a stoker somberly. “They have snatched away your breadgiver, the scoundrels! Well, give us three cents’ worth of vermicelli. Never mind, mother! You’ll pull through!”
“Thanks for the good word!” she returned, smiling.
He walked off to one side and mumbled, “It doesn’t cost me much to say a good word!”
“But there’s no one to say it to!” observed a blacksmith, with a smile, and shrugging his shoulders in surprise added: “There’s a life for you, fellows! There’s no one to say a good word to; no one is worth it. Yes, sir!”
Vasily Gusev rose, wrapped his coat tightly around him, and exclaimed:
“What I ate was hot, and yet I feel cold.”
Then he walked away. Ivan also rose, and ran off whistling merrily.
Cheerful and smiling, Nilovna kept on calling her wares:
“Hot! Hot! Sour soup! Vermicelli soup! Porridge!”
She thought of how she would tell her son about her first experience; and the yellow face of the officer was still standing before her, perplexed and spiteful. His black mustache twitched uneasily, and his upper lip turned up nervously, showing the gleaming white enamel of his clenched teeth. A keen joy beat and sang in her heart like a bird, her eyebrows quivered, and continuing deftly to serve her customers she muttered to herself:
“There’s more! There’s more!”
Through the whole day she felt a sensation of delightful newness which embraced her heart as with a fondling caress. And in the evening, when she had concluded her work at Marya’s house, and was drinking tea, the splash of horses’ hoofs in the mud was heard, and the call of a familiar voice. She jumped up, hurried into the kitchen, and made straight for the door. Somebody walked quickly through the porch; her eyes grew dim, and leaning against the doorpost, she pushed the door open with her foot.
“Good evening, mother!” a familiar, melodious voice rang out, and a pair of dry, long hands were laid on her shoulders.
The joy of seeing Andrey was mingled in her bosom with the sadness of disappointment; and the two contrary feelings blended into one burning sensation which embraced her like a hot wave. She buried her face in Andrey’s bosom. He pressed her tightly to himself, his hands trembled. The mother wept quietly without speaking, while he stroked her hair, and spoke in his musical voice:
“Don’t cry, mother. Don’t wring my heart. Upon my honest word, they will let him out soon! They haven’t a thing against him; all the boys will keep quiet as cooked fish.”
Putting his long arm around the mother’s shoulders he led her into the room, and nestling up against him with the quick gesture of a squirrel, she wiped the tears from her face, while her heart greedily drank in his tender words.
“Pavel sends you his love. He is as well and cheerful as can be. It’s very crowded in the prison. They have thrown in more than a hundred of our people, both from here and from the city. Three and four persons have been put into one cell. The prison officials are rather a good set. They are exhausted with the quantity of work the gendarmes have been giving them. The prison authorities are not extremely rigorous, they don’t order you about roughly. They simply say: ‘Be quiet as you can, gentlemen. Don’t put us in an awkward position!’ So everything goes well. We talk with one another, we give books to one another, and we share our food. It’s a good prison! Old and dirty, but so soft and so light. The criminals are also nice people; they help us a good deal. Bukin, four others, and myself were released. It got too crowded. They’ll let Pavel go soon, too. I’m telling you the truth, believe me. Vyesovshchikov will be detained the longest. They are very angry at him. He scolds and swears at everybody all the time. The gendarmes can’t bear to look at him. I guess he’ll get himself into court, or receive a sound thrashing some day. Pavel tries to dissuade him. ‘Stop, Nikolay!’ he says to him. ‘Your swearing won’t reform them.’ But he bawls: ‘Wipe them off the face of the earth like a pest!’ Pavel conducts himself finely out there; he treats all alike, and is as firm as a rock! They’ll soon let him go.”
“Soon?” said the mother, relieved now and smiling. “I know he’ll be let out soon!”
“Well, if you know, it’s all right! Give me tea, mother. Tell me how you’ve been, how you’ve passed your time.”
He looked at her, smiling all over, and seemed so near to her, such a splendid fellow. A loving, somewhat melancholy gleam flashed from the depths of his round, blue eyes.
“I love you dearly, Andriusha!” the mother said, heaving a deep sigh, as she looked at his thin face grotesquely covered with tufts of hair.
“People are satisfied with little from me! I know you love me; you are capable of loving everybody; you have a great heart,” said the Little Russian, rocking in his chair, his eyes straying about the room.
“No, I love you very differently!” insisted the mother. “If you had a mother, people would envy her because she had such a son.”
The Little Russian swayed his head, and rubbed it vigorously with both hands.
“I have a mother, somewhere!” he said in a low voice.
“Do you know what I did to-day?” she exclaimed, and reddening a little, her voice choking with satisfaction, she quickly recounted how she had smuggled literature into the factory.
For a moment he looked at her in amazement with his eyes wide open; then he burst out into a loud guffaw, stamped his feet, thumped his head with his fingers, and cried joyously:
“Oho! That’s no joke any more! That’s business! Won’t Pavel be glad, though! Oh, you’re a trump. That’s good, mother! You have no idea HOW good it is! Both for Pavel and all who were arrested with him!”
He snapped his fingers in ecstasy, whistled, and fairly doubled over, all radiant with joy. His delight evoked a vigorous response from the mother.
“My dear, my Andriusha!” she began, as if her heart had burst open, and gushed over merrily with a limpid stream of living words full of serene joy. “I’ve thought all my life, ‘Lord Christ in heaven! what did I live for?’ Beatings, work! I saw nothing except my husband. I knew nothing but fear! And how Pasha grew I did not see, and I hardly know whether I loved him when my husband was alive. All my concerns, all my thoughts were centered upon one thing — to feed my beast, to propitiate the master of my life with enough food, pleasing to his palate, and served on time, so as not to incur his displeasure, so as to escape the terrors of a beating, to get him to spare me but once! But I do not remember that he ever did spare me. He beat me so — not as a wife is beaten, but as one whom you hate and detest. Twenty years I lived like that, and what was up to the time of my marriage I do not recall. I remember certain things, but I see nothing! I am as a blind person. Yegor Ivanovich was here — we are from the same village — and he spoke about this and about that. I remember the houses, the people, but how they lived, what they spoke about, what happened to this one and what to that one — I forget, I do not see! I remember fires — two fires. It seems that everything has been beaten out of me, that my soul has been locked up and sealed tight. It’s grown blind, it does not hear!”
Her quick-drawn breath was almost a sob. She bent forward, and continued in a lowered voice: “When my husband died I turned to my son; but he went into this business, and I was seized with a pity for him, such a yearning pity — for if he should perish, how was I to live alone? What dread, what fright I have undergone! My heart was rent when I thought of his fate.
“Our woman’s love is not a pure love! We love that which we need. And here are you! You are grieving about your mother. What do you want her for? And all the others go and suffer for the people, they go to prison, to Siberia, they die for them, many are hung. Young girls walk alone at night, in the snow, in the mud, in the rain. They walk seven versts from the city to our place. Who drives them? Who pursues them? They love! You see, theirs is pure love! They believe! Yes, indeed, they believe, Andriusha! But here am I— I can’t love like that! I love my own, the near ones!”
“Yes, you can!” said the Little Russian, and turning away his face from her, he rubbed his head, face, and eyes vigorously as was his wont. “Everybody loves those who are near,” he continued. “To a large heart, what is far is also near. You, mother, are capable of a great deal. You have a large capacity of motherliness!”
“God grant it!” she said quietly. “I feel that it is good to live like that! Here are you, for instance, whom I love. Maybe I love you better than I do Pasha. He is always so silent. Here he wants to get married to Sashenka, for example, and he never told me, his mother, a thing about it.”
“That’s not true,” the Little Russian retorted abruptly. “I know it isn’t true. It’s true he loves her, and she loves him. But marry? No, they are not going to marry! She’d want to, but Pavel — he can’t! He doesn’t want to!”
“See how you are!” said the mother quietly, and she fixed her eyes sadly and musingly on the Little Russian’s face. “You see how you are! You offer up your own selves!”
“Pavel is a rare man!” the Little Russian uttered in a low voice. “He is a man of iron!”
“Now he sits in prison,” continued the mother reflectively. “It’s awful, it’s terrible! It’s not as it used to be before! Life altogether is not as it used to be, and the terror is different from the old terror. You feel a pity for everybody, and you are alarmed for everybody! And the heart is different. The soul has opened its eyes, it looks on, and is sad and glad at the same time. There’s much I do not understand, and I feel so bitter and hurt that you do not believe in the Lord God. Well, I guess I can’t help that! But I see and know that you are good people. And you have consecrated yourselves to a stern life for the sake of the people, to a life of hardship for the sake of truth. The truth you stand for, I comprehend: as long as there will be the rich, the people will get nothing, neither truth nor happiness, nothing! Indeed, that’s so, Andriusha! Here am I living among you, while all this is going on. Sometimes at night my thoughts wander off to my past. I think of my youthful strength trampled under foot, of my young heart torn and beaten, and I feel sorry for myself and embittered. But for all that I live better now, I see myself more and more, I feel myself more.”
The Little Russian arose, and trying not to scrape with his feet, began to walk carefully up and down the room, tall, lean, absorbed in thought.
“Well said!” he exclaimed in a low voice. “Very well! There was a young Jew in Kerch who wrote verses, and once he wrote:
“And the innocently slain,
Truth will raise to life again.”
“He himself was killed by the police in Kerch, but that’s not the point. He knew the truth and did a great deal to spread it among the people. So here you are one of the innocently slain. He spoke the truth!”
“There, I am talking now,” the mother continued. “I talk and do not hear myself, don’t believe my own ears! All my life I was silent, I always thought of one thing — how to live through the day apart, how to pass it without being noticed, so that nobody should touch me! And now I think about everything. Maybe I don’t understand your affairs so very well; but all are near me, I feel sorry for all, and I wish well to all. And to you, Andriusha, more than all the rest.”
He took her hand in his, pressed it tightly, and quickly turned aside. Fatigued with emotion and agitation, the mother leisurely and silently washed the cups; and her breast gently glowed with a bold feeling that warmed her heart.
Walking up and down the room the Little Russian said:
“Mother, why don’t you sometimes try to befriend Vyesovshchikov and be kind to him? He is a fellow that needs it. His father sits in prison — a nasty little old man. Nikolay sometimes catches sight of him through the window and he begins to swear at him. That’s bad, you know. He is a good fellow, Nikolay is. He is fond of dogs, mice, and all sorts of animals, but he does not like people. That’s the pass to which a man can be brought.”
“His mother disappeared without a trace, his father is a thief and a drunkard,” said Nilovna pensively.
When Andrey left to go to bed, the mother, without being noticed, made the sign of the cross over him, and after about half an hour, she asked quietly, “Are you asleep, Andriusha?”
“Nothing! Good night!”
“Thank you, mother, thank you!” he answered gently.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55