Two weeks after the death of his father, on a Sunday, Pavel came home very drunk. Staggering he crawled to a corner in the front of the room, and striking his fist on the table as his father used to do, shouted to his mother:
The mother walked up to him, sat down at his side, and with her arm around her son, drew his head upon her breast. With his hand on her shoulder he pushed her away and shouted:
“You foolish boy!” said the mother in a sad and affectionate voice, trying to overcome his resistance.
“I am going to smoke, too. Give me father’s pipe,” mumbled Pavel indistinctly, wagging his tongue heavily.
It was the first time he had been drunk. The alcohol weakened his body, but it did not quench his consciousness, and the question knocked at his brain: “Drunk? Drunk?”
The fondling of his mother troubled him, and he was touched by the sadness in her eyes. He wanted to weep, and in order to overcome this desire he endeavored to appear more drunk than he actually was.
The mother stroked his tangled hair, and said in a low voice:
“Why did you do it? You oughtn’t to have done it.”
He began to feel sick, and after a violent attack of nausea the mother put him to bed, and laid a wet towel over his pale forehead. He sobered a little, but under and around him everything seemed to be rocking; his eyelids grew heavy; he felt a bad, sour taste in his mouth; he looked through his eyelashes on his mother’s large face, and thought disjointedly:
“It seems it’s too early for me. Others drink and nothing happens — and I feel sick.”
Somewhere from a distance came the mother’s soft voice:
“What sort of a breadgiver will you be to me if you begin to drink?”
He shut his eyes tightly and answered:
The mother sighed. He was right. She herself knew that besides the tavern there was no place where people could enjoy themselves; besides the taste of whisky there was no other gratification. Nevertheless she said:
“But don’t you drink. Your father drank for both of you. And he made enough misery for me. Take pity on your mother, then, will you not?”
Listening to the soft, pitiful words of his mother, Pavel remembered that in his father’s lifetime she had remained unnoticed in the house. She had been silent and had always lived in anxious expectation of blows. Desiring to avoid his father, he had been home very little of late; he had become almost unaccustomed to his mother, and now, as he gradually sobered up, he looked at her fixedly.
She was tall and somewhat stooping. Her heavy body, broken down with long years of toil and the beatings of her husband, moved about noiselessly and inclined to one side, as if she were in constant fear of knocking up against something. Her broad oval face, wrinkled and puffy, was lighted up with a pair of dark eyes, troubled and melancholy as those of most of the women in the village. On her right eyebrow was a deep scar, which turned the eyebrow upward a little; her right ear, too, seemed to be higher than the left, which gave her face the appearance of alarmed listening. Gray locks glistened in her thick, dark hair, like the imprints of heavy blows. Altogether she was soft, melancholy, and submissive.
Tears slowly trickled down her cheeks.
“Wait, don’t cry!” begged the son in a soft voice. “Give me a drink.”
She rose and said:
“I’ll give you some ice water.”
But when she returned he was already asleep. She stood over him for a minute, trying to breathe lightly. The cup in her hand trembled, and the ice knocked against the tin. Then, setting the cup on the table, she knelt before the sacred image upon the wall, and began to pray in silence. The sounds of dark, drunken life beat against the window panes; an accordion screeched in the misty darkness of the autumn night; some one sang a loud song; some one was swearing with ugly, vile oaths, and the excited sounds of women’s irritated, weary voices cut the air.
Life in the little house of the Vlasovs flowed on monotonously, but more calmly and undisturbed than before, and somewhat different from everywhere else in the suburb.
The house stood at the edge of the village, by a low but steep and muddy declivity. A third of the house was occupied by the kitchen and a small room used for the mother’s bedroom, separated from the kitchen by a partition reaching partially to the ceiling. The other two thirds formed a square room with two windows. In one corner stood Pavel’s bed, in front a table and two benches. Some chairs, a washstand with a small looking-glass over it, a trunk with clothes, a clock on the wall, and two ikons — this was the entire outfit of the household.
Pavel tried to live like the rest. He did all a young lad should do — bought himself an accordion, a shirt with a starched front, a loud-colored necktie, overshoes, and a cane. Externally he became like all the other youths of his age. He went to evening parties and learned to dance a quadrille and a polka. On holidays he came home drunk, and always suffered greatly from the effects of liquor. In the morning his head ached, he was tormented by heartburns, his face was pale and dull.
Once his mother asked him:
“Well, did you have a good time yesterday?”
He answered dismally and with irritation:
“Oh, dreary as a graveyard! Everybody is like a machine. I’d better go fishing or buy myself a gun.”
He worked faithfully, without intermission and without incurring fines. He was taciturn, and his eyes, blue and large like his mother’s, looked out discontentedly. He did not buy a gun, nor did he go a-fishing; but he gradually began to avoid the beaten path trodden by all. His attendance at parties became less and less frequent, and although he went out somewhere on holidays, he always returned home sober. His mother watched him unobtrusively but closely, and saw the tawny face of her son grow keener and keener, and his eyes more serious. She noticed that his lips were compressed in a peculiar manner, imparting an odd expression of austerity to his face. It seemed as if he were always angry at something or as if a canker gnawed at him. At first his friends came to visit him, but never finding him at home, they remained away.
The mother was glad to see her son turning out different from all the other factory youth; but a feeling of anxiety and apprehension stirred in her heart when she observed that he was obstinately and resolutely directing his life into obscure paths leading away from the routine existence about him — that he turned in his career neither to the right nor the left.
He began to bring books home with him. At first he tried to escape attention when reading them; and after he had finished a book, he hid it. Sometimes he copied a passage on a piece of paper, and hid that also.
“Aren’t you well, Pavlusha?” the mother asked once.
“I’m all right,” he answered.
“You are so thin,” said the mother with a sigh.
He was silent.
They spoke infrequently, and saw each other very little. In the morning he drank tea in silence, and went off to work; at noon he came for dinner, a few insignificant remarks were passed at the table, and he again disappeared until the evening. And in the evening, the day’s work ended, he washed himself, took supper, and then fell to his books, and read for a long time. On holidays he left home in the morning and returned late at night. She knew he went to the city and the theater; but nobody from the city ever came to visit him. It seemed to her that with the lapse of time her son spoke less and less; and at the same time she noticed that occasionally and with increasing frequency he used new words unintelligible to her, and that the coarse, rude, and hard expressions dropped from his speech. In his general conduct, also, certain traits appeared, forcing themselves upon his mother’s attention. He ceased to affect the dandy, but became more attentive to the cleanliness of his body and dress, and moved more freely and alertly. The increasing softness and simplicity of his manner aroused a disquieting interest in his mother.
Once he brought a picture and hung it on the wall. It represented three persons walking lightly and boldly, and conversing.
“This is Christ risen from the dead, and going to Emmaus,” explained Pavel.
The mother liked the picture, but she thought:
“You respect Christ, and yet you do not go to church.”
Then more pictures appeared on the walls, and the number of books increased on the shelves neatly made for him by one of his carpenter friends. The room began to look like a home.
He addressed his mother with the reverential plural “you,” and called her “mother” instead of “mamma.” But sometimes he turned to her suddenly, and briefly used the simple and familiar form of the singular: “Mamma, please be not thou disturbed if I come home late to-night.”
This pleased her; in such words she felt something serious and strong.
But her uneasiness increased. Since her son’s strangeness was not clarified with time, her heart became more and more sharply troubled with a foreboding of something unusual. Every now and then she felt a certain dissatisfaction with him, and she thought: “All people are like people, and he is like a monk. He is so stern. It’s not according to his years.” At other times she thought: “Maybe he has become interested in some of a girl down there.”
But to go about with girls, money is needed, and he gave almost all his earnings to her.
Thus weeks and months elapsed; and imperceptibly two years slipped by, two years of a strange, silent life, full of disquieting thoughts and anxieties that kept continually increasing.
Once, when after supper Pavel drew the curtain over the window, sat down in a corner, and began to read, his tin lamp hanging on the wall over his head, the mother, after removing the dishes, came out from the kitchen and carefully walked up to him. He raised his head, and without speaking looked at her with a questioning expression.
“Nothing, Pasha, just so!” she said hastily, and walked away, moving her eyebrows agitatedly. But after standing in the kitchen for a moment, motionless, thoughtful, deeply preoccupied, she washed her hands and approached her son again.
“I want to ask you,” she said in a low, soft voice, “what you read all the time.”
He put his book aside and said to her: “Sit down, mother.”
The mother sat down heavily at his side, and straightening herself into an attitude of intense, painful expectation waited for something momentous.
Without looking at her, Pavel spoke, not loudly, but for some reason very sternly:
“I am reading forbidden books. They are forbidden to be read because they tell the truth about our — about the workingmen’s life. They are printed in secret, and if I am found with them I will be put in prison — I will be put in prison because I want to know the truth.”
Breathing suddenly became difficult for her. Opening her eyes wide she looked at her son, and he seemed to her new, as if a stranger. His voice was different, lower, deeper, more sonorous. He pinched his thin, downy mustache, and looked oddly askance into the corner. She grew anxious for her son and pitied him.
“Why do you do this, Pasha?”
He raised his head, looked at her, and said in a low, calm voice:
“I want to know the truth.”
His voice sounded placid, but firm; and his eyes flashed resolution. She understood with her heart that her son had consecrated himself forever to something mysterious and awful. Everything in life had always appeared to her inevitable; she was accustomed to submit without thought, and now, too, she only wept softly, finding no words, but in her heart she was oppressed with sorrow and distress.
“Don’t cry,” said Pavel, kindly and softly; and it seemed to her that he was bidding her farewell.
“Think what kind of a life you are leading. You are forty years old, and have you lived? Father beat you. I understand now that he avenged his wretchedness on your body, the wretchedness of his life. It pressed upon him, and he did not know whence it came. He worked for thirty years; he began to work when the whole factory occupied but two buildings; now there are seven of them. The mills grow, and people die, working for them.”
She listened to him eagerly and awestruck. His eyes burned with a beautiful radiance. Leaning forward on the table he moved nearer to his mother, and looking straight into her face, wet with tears, he delivered his first speech to her about the truth which he had now come to understand. With the naivete of youth, and the ardor of a young student proud of his knowledge, religiously confiding in its truth, he spoke about everything that was clear to him, and spoke not so much for his mother as to verify and strengthen his own opinions. At times he halted, finding no words, and then he saw before him a disturbed face, in which dimly shone a pair of kind eyes clouded with tears. They looked on with awe and perplexity. He was sorry for his mother, and began to speak again, about herself and her life.
“What joys did you know?” he asked. “What sort of a past can you recall?”
She listened and shook her head dolefully, feeling something new, unknown to her, both sorrowful and gladsome, like a caress to her troubled and aching heart. It was the first time she had heard such language about herself, her own life. It awakened in her misty, dim thoughts, long dormant; gently roused an almost extinct feeling of rebellion, perplexed dissatisfaction — thoughts and feelings of a remote youth. She often discussed life with her neighbors, spoke a great deal about everything; but all, herself included, only complained; no one explained why life was so hard and burdensome.
And now her son sat before her; and what he said about her — his eyes, his face, his words — it all clutched at her heart, filling her with a sense of pride for her son, who truly understood the life of his mother, and spoke the truth about her and her sufferings, and pitied her.
Mothers are not pitied. She knew it. She did not understand Pavel when speaking about matters not pertaining to herself, but all he said about her own woman’s existence was bitterly familiar and true. Hence it seemed to her that every word of his was perfectly true, and her bosom throbbed with a gentle sensation which warmed it more and more with an unknown, kindly caress.
“What do you want to do, then?” she asked, interrupting his speech.
“Study and then teach others. We workingmen must study. We must learn, we must understand why life is so hard for us.”
It was sweet to her to see that his blue eyes, always so serious and stern, now glowed with warmth, softly illuminating something new within him. A soft, contented smile played around her lips, although the tears still trembled in the wrinkles of her face. She wavered between two feelings: pride in her son who desired the good of all people, had pity for all, and understood the sorrow and affliction of life; and the involuntary regret for his youth, because he did not speak like everybody else, because he resolved to enter alone into a fight against the life to which all, including herself, were accustomed.
She wanted to say to him: “My dear, what can you do? People will crush you. You will perish.”
But it was pleasant to her to listen to his speeches, and she feared to disturb her delight in her son, who suddenly revealed himself so new and wise, even if somewhat strange.
Pavel saw the smile around his mother’s lips, the attention in her face, the love in her eyes; and it seemed to him that he compelled her to understand his truth; and youthful pride in the power of his word heightened his faith in himself. Seized with enthusiasm, he continued to talk, now smiling, now frowning. Occasionally hatred sounded in his words; and when his mother heard its bitter, harsh accents she shook her head, frightened, and asked in a low voice:
“Is it so, Pasha?”
“It is so!” he answered firmly. And he told her about people who wanted the good of men, and who sowed truth among them; and because of this the enemies of life hunted them down like beasts, thrust them into prisons, and exiled them, and set them to hard labor.
“I have seen such people!” he exclaimed passionately. “They are the best people on earth!”
These people filled the mother with terror, and she wanted to ask her son: “Is it so, Pasha?”
But she hesitated, and leaning back she listened to the stories of people incomprehensible to her, who taught her son to speak and think words and thoughts so dangerous to him. Finally she said:
“It will soon be daylight. You ought to go to bed. You’ve got to go to work.”
“Yes, I’ll go to bed at once,” he assented. “Did you understand me?”
“I did,” she said, drawing a deep breath. Tears rolled down from her eyes again, and breaking into sobs she added: “You will perish, my son!”
Pavel walked up and down the room.
“Well, now you know what I am doing and where I am going. I told you all. I beg of you, mother, if you love me, do not hinder me!”
“My darling, my beloved!” she cried, “maybe it would be better for me not to have known anything!”
He took her hand and pressed it firmly in his. The word “mother,” pronounced by him with feverish emphasis, and that clasp of the hand so new and strange, moved her.
“I will do nothing!” she said in a broken voice. “Only be on your guard! Be on your guard!” Not knowing what he should be on his guard against, nor how to warn him, she added mournfully: “You are getting so thin.”
And with a look of affectionate warmth, which seemed to embrace his firm, well-shaped body, she said hastily, and in a low voice:
“God be with you! Live as you want to. I will not hinder you. One thing only I beg of you — do not speak to people unguardedly! You must be on the watch with people; they all hate one another. They live in greed and envy; all are glad to do injury; people persecute out of sheer amusement. When you begin to accuse them and to judge them, they will hate you, and will hound you to destruction!”
Pavel stood in the doorway listening to the melancholy speech, and when the mother had finished he said with a smile:
“Yes, people are sorry creatures; but when I came to recognize that there is truth in the world, people became better.” He smiled again and added: “I do not know how it happened myself! From childhood I feared everybody; as I grew up I began to hate everybody, some for their meanness, others — well, I do not know why — just so! And now I see all the people in a different way. I am grieved for them all! I cannot understand it; but my heart turned softer when I recognized that there is truth in men, and that not all are to blame for their foulness and filth.”
He was silent as if listening to something within himself. Then he said in a low voice and thoughtfully:
“That’s how truth lives.”
She looked at him tenderly.
“May God protect you!” she sighed. “It is a dangerous change that has come upon you.”
When he had fallen asleep, the mother rose carefully from her bed and came gently into her son’s room. Pavel’s swarthy, resolute, stern face was clearly outlined against the white pillow. Pressing her hand to her bosom, the mother stood at his bedside. Her lips moved mutely, and great tears rolled down her cheeks.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55