Again they lived in silence, distant and yet near to each other. Once, in the middle of the week, on a holiday, as he was preparing to leave the house he said to his mother:
“I expect some people here on Saturday.”
“What people?” she asked.
“Some people from our village, and others from the city.”
“From the city?” repeated the mother, shaking her head. And suddenly she broke into sobs.
“Now, mother, why this?” cried Pavel resentfully. “What for?”
Drying her face with her apron, she answered quietly:
“I don’t know, but it is the way I feel.”
He paced up and down the room, then halting before her, said:
“Are you afraid?”
“I am afraid,” she acknowledged. “Those people from the city — who knows them?”
He bent down to look in her face, and said in an offended tone, and, it seemed to her, angrily, like his father:
“This fear is what is the ruin of us all. And some dominate us; they take advantage of our fear and frighten us still more. Mark this: as long as people are afraid, they will rot like the birches in the marsh. We must grow bold; it is time!
“It’s all the same,” he said, as he turned from her; “they’ll meet in my house, anyway.”
“Don’t be angry with me!” the mother begged sadly. “How can I help being afraid? All my life I have lived in fear!”
“Forgive me!” was his gentler reply, “but I cannot do otherwise,” and he walked away.
For three days her heart was in a tremble, sinking in fright each time she remembered that strange people were soon to come to her house. She could not picture them to herself, but it seemed to her they were terrible people. It was they who had shown her son the road he was going.
On Saturday night Pavel came from the factory, washed himself, put on clean clothes, and when walking out of the house said to his mother without looking at her:
“When they come, tell them I’ll be back soon. Let them wait a while. And please don’t be afraid. They are people like all other people.”
She sank into her seat almost fainting.
Her son looked at her soberly. “Maybe you’d better go away somewhere,” he suggested.
The thought offended her. Shaking her head in dissent, she said:
“No, it’s all the same. What for?”
It was the end of November. During the day a dry, fine snow had fallen upon the frozen earth, and now she heard it crunching outside the window under her son’s feet as he walked away. A dense crust of darkness settled immovably upon the window panes, and seemed to lie in hostile watch for something. Supporting herself on the bench, the mother sat and waited, looking at the door.
It seemed to her that people were stealthily and watchfully walking about the house in the darkness, stooping and looking about on all sides, strangely attired and silent. There around the house some one was already coming, fumbling with his hands along the wall.
A whistle was heard. It circled around like the notes of a fine chord, sad and melodious, wandered musingly into the wilderness of darkness, and seemed to be searching for something. It came nearer. Suddenly it died away under the window, as if it had entered into the wood of the wall. The noise of feet was heard on the porch. The mother started, and rose with a strained, frightened look in her eyes.
The door opened. At first a head with a big, shaggy hat thrust itself into the room; then a slender, bending body crawled in, straightened itself out, and deliberately raised its right hand.
“Good evening!” said the man, in a thick, bass voice, breathing heavily.
The mother bowed in silence.
“Pavel is not at home yet?”
The stranger leisurely removed his short fur jacket, raised one foot, whipped the snow from his boot with his hat, then did the same with the other foot, flung his hat into a corner, and rocking on his thin legs walked into the room, looking back at the imprints he left on the floor. He approached the table, examined it as if to satisfy himself of its solidity, and finally sat down and, covering his mouth with his hand, yawned. His head was perfectly round and close-cropped, his face shaven except for a thin mustache, the ends of which pointed downward.
After carefully scrutinizing the room with his large, gray, protuberant eyes, he crossed his legs, and, leaning his head over the table, inquired:
“Is this your own house, or do you rent it?”
The mother, sitting opposite him, answered:
“We rent it.”
“Not a very fine house,” he remarked.
“Pasha will soon be here; wait,” said the mother quietly.
“Why, yes, I am waiting,” said the man.
His calmness, his deep, sympathetic voice, and the candor and simplicity of his face encouraged the mother. He looked at her openly and kindly, and a merry sparkle played in the depths of his transparent eyes. In the entire angular, stooping figure, with its thin legs, there was something comical, yet winning. He was dressed in a blue shirt, and dark, loose trousers thrust into his boots. She was seized with the desire to ask him who he was, whence he came, and whether he had known her son long. But suddenly he himself put a question, leaning forward with a swing of his whole body.
“Who made that hole in your forehead, mother?”
His question was uttered in a kind voice and with a noticeable smile in his eyes; but the woman was offended by the sally. She pressed her lips together tightly, and after a pause rejoined with cold civility:
“And what business is it of yours, sir?”
With the same swing of his whole body toward her, he said:
“Now, don’t get angry! I ask because my foster mother had her head smashed just exactly like yours. It was her man who did it for her once, with a last — he was a shoemaker, you see. She was a washerwoman and he was a shoemaker. It was after she had taken me as her son that she found him somewhere, a drunkard, and married him, to her great misfortune. He beat her — I tell you, my skin almost burst with terror.”
The mother felt herself disarmed by his openness. Moreover, it occurred to her that perhaps her son would be displeased with her harsh reply to this odd personage. Smiling guiltily she said:
“I am not angry, but — you see — you asked so very soon. It was my good man, God rest his soul! who treated me to the cut. Are you a Tartar?”
The stranger stretched out his feet, and smiled so broad a smile that the ends of his mustache traveled to the nape of his neck. Then he said seriously:
“Not yet. I’m not a Tartar yet.”
“I asked because I rather thought the way you spoke was not exactly Russian,” she explained, catching his joke.
“I am better than a Russian, I am!” said the guest laughingly. “I am a Little Russian from the city of Kanyev.”
“And have you been here long?”
“I lived in the city about a month, and I came to your factory about a month ago. I found some good people, your son and a few others. I will live here for a while,” he said, twirling his mustache.
The man pleased the mother, and, yielding to the impulse to repay him in some way for his kind words about her son, she questioned again:
“Maybe you’d like to have a glass of tea?”
“What! An entertainment all to myself!” he answered, raising his shoulders. “I’ll wait for the honor until we are all here.”
This allusion to the coming of others recalled her fear to her.
“If they all are only like this one!” was her ardent wish.
Again steps were heard on the porch. The door opened quickly, and the mother rose. This time she was taken completely aback by the newcomer in her kitchen — a poorly and lightly dressed girl of medium height, with the simple face of a peasant woman, and a head of thick, dark hair. Smiling she said in a low voice:
“Am I late?”
“Why, no!” answered the Little Russian, looking out of the living room. “Come on foot?”
“Of course! Are you the mother of Pavel Vlasov? Good evening! My name is Natasha.”
“And your other name?” inquired the mother.
“Vasilyevna. And yours?”
“So here we are all acquainted.”
“Yes,” said the mother, breathing more easily, as if relieved, and looking at the girl with a smile.
The Little Russian helped her off with her cloak, and inquired:
“Is it cold?”
“Out in the open, very! The wind — goodness!”
Her voice was musical and clear, her mouth small and smiling, her body round and vigorous. Removing her wraps, she rubbed her ruddy cheeks briskly with her little hands, red with the cold, and walking lightly and quickly she passed into the room, the heels of her shoes rapping sharply on the floor.
“She goes without overshoes,” the mother noted silently.
“Indeed it is cold,” repeated the girl. “I’m frozen through — ooh!”
“I’ll warm up the samovar for you!” the mother said, bustling and solicitous. “Ready in a moment,” she called from the kitchen.
Somehow it seemed to her she had known the girl long, and even loved her with the tender, compassionate love of a mother. She was glad to see her; and recalling her guest’s bright blue eyes, she smiled contentedly, as she prepared the samovar and listened to the conversation in the room.
“Why so gloomy, Nakhodka?” asked the girl.
“The widow has good eyes,” answered the Little Russian. “I was thinking maybe my mother has such eyes. You know, I keep thinking of her as alive.”
“You said she was dead?”
“That’s my adopted mother. I am speaking now of my real mother. It seems to me that perhaps she may be somewhere in Kiev begging alms and drinking whisky.”
“Why do you think such awful things?”
“I don’t know. And the policemen pick her up on the street drunk and beat her.”
“Oh, you poor soul,” thought the mother, and sighed.
Natasha muttered something hotly and rapidly; and again the sonorous voice of the Little Russian was heard.
“Ah, you are young yet, comrade,” he said. “You haven’t eaten enough onions yet. Everyone has a mother, none the less people are bad. For although it is hard to rear children, it is still harder to teach a man to be good.”
“What strange ideas he has,” the mother thought, and for a moment she felt like contradicting the Little Russian and telling him that here was she who would have been glad to teach her son good, but knew nothing herself. The door, however, opened and in came Nikolay Vyesovshchikov, the son of the old thief Daniel, known in the village as a misanthrope. He always kept at a sullen distance from people, who retaliated by making sport of him.
“You, Nikolay! How’s that?” she asked in surprise.
Without replying he merely looked at the mother with his little gray eyes, and wiped his pockmarked, high-cheeked face with the broad palm of his hand.
“Is Pavel at home?” he asked hoarsely.
He looked into the room and said:
“Good evening, comrades.”
“He, too. Is it possible?” wondered the mother resentfully, and was greatly surprised to see Natasha put her hand out to him in a kind, glad welcome.
The next to come were two young men, scarcely more than boys. One of them the mother knew. He was Yakob, the son of the factory watchman, Somov. The other, with a sharp-featured face, high forehead, and curly hair, was unknown to her; but he, too, was not terrible.
Finally Pavel appeared, and with him two men, both of whose faces she recognized as those of workmen in the factory.
“You’ve prepared the samovar! That’s fine. Thank you!” said Pavel as he saw what his mother had done.
“Perhaps I should get some vodka,” she suggested, not knowing how to express her gratitude to him for something which as yet she did not understand.
“No, we don’t need it!” he responded, removing his coat and smiling affectionately at her.
It suddenly occurred to her that her son, by way of jest, had purposely exaggerated the danger of the gathering.
“Are these the ones they call illegal people?” she whispered.
“The very ones!” answered Pavel, and passed into the room.
She looked lovingly after him and thought to herself condescendingly:
When the samovar boiled, and she brought it into the room, she found the guests sitting in a close circle around the table, and Natasha installed in the corner under the lamp with a book in her hands.
“In order to understand why people live so badly,” said Natasha.
“And why they are themselves so bad,” put in the Little Russian.
“It is necessary to see how they began to live ——”
“See, my dears, see!” mumbled the mother, making the tea.
They all stopped talking.
“What is the matter, mother?” asked Pavel, knitting his brows.
“What?” She looked around, and seeing the eyes of all upon her she explained with embarrassment, “I was just speaking to myself.”
Natasha laughed and Pavel smiled, but the Little Russian said: “Thank you for the tea, mother.”
“Hasn’t drunk it yet and thanks me already,” she commented inwardly. Looking at her son, she asked: “I am not in your way?”
“How can the hostess in her own home be in the way of her guests?” replied Natasha, and then continuing with childish plaintiveness: “Mother dear, give me tea quick! I am shivering with cold; my feet are all frozen.”
“In a moment, in a moment!” exclaimed the mother, hurrying.
Having drunk a cup of tea, Natasha drew a long breath, brushed her hair back from her forehead, and began to read from a large yellow-covered book with pictures. The mother, careful not to make a noise with the dishes, poured tea into the glasses, and strained her untrained mind to listen to the girl’s fluent reading. The melodious voice blended with the thin, musical hum of the samovar. The clear, simple narrative of savage people who lived in caves and killed the beasts with stones floated and quivered like a dainty ribbon in the room. It sounded like a tale, and the mother looked up to her son occasionally, wishing to ask him what was illegal in the story about wild men. But she soon ceased to follow the narrative and began to scrutinize the guests, unnoticed by them or her son.
Pavel sat at Natasha’s side. He was the handsomest of them all. Natasha bent down, very low over the book. At times she tossed back the thin curls that kept running down over her forehead, and lowered her voice to say something not in the book, with a kind look at the faces of her auditors. The Little Russian bent his broad chest over a corner of the table, and squinted his eyes in the effort to see the worn ends of his mustache, which he constantly twirled. Vyesovshchikov sat on his chair straight as a pole, his palms resting on his knees, and his pockmarked face, browless and thin-lipped, immobile as a mask. He kept his narrow-eyed gaze stubbornly fixed upon the reflection of his face in the glittering brass of the samovar. He seemed not even to breathe. Little Somov moved his lips mutely, as if repeating to himself the words in the book; and his curly-haired companion, with bent body, elbows on knees, his face supported on his hands, smiled abstractedly. One of the men who had entered at the same time as Pavel, a slender young chap with red, curly hair and merry green eyes, apparently wanted to say something; for he kept turning around impatiently. The other, light-haired and closely cropped, stroked his head with his hand and looked down on the floor so that his face remained invisible.
It was warm in the room, and the atmosphere was genial. The mother responded to this peculiar charm, which she had never before felt. She was affected by the purling of Natasha’s voice, mingled with the quavering hum of the samovar, and recalled the noisy evening parties of her youth — the coarseness of the young men, whose breath always smelled of vodka — their cynical jokes. She remembered all this, and an oppressive sense of pity for her own self gently stirred her worn, outraged heart.
Before her rose the scene of the wooing of her husband. At one of the parties he had seized her in a dark porch, and pressing her with his whole body to the wall asked in a gruff, vexed voice:
“Will you marry me?”
She had been pained and had felt offended; but he rudely dug his fingers into her flesh, snorted heavily, and breathed his hot, humid breath into her face. She struggled to tear herself out of his grasp.
“Hold on!” he roared. “Answer me! Well?”
Out of breath, shamed and insulted, she remained silent.
“Don’t put on airs now, you fool! I know your kind. You are mighty pleased.”
Some one opened the door. He let her go leisurely, saying:
“I will send a matchmaker to you next Sunday.”
And he did.
The mother covered her eyes and heaved a deep sigh.
“I do not want to know how people used to live, but how they ought to live!” The dull, dissatisfied voice of Vyesovshchikov was heard in the room.
“That’s it!” corroborated the red-headed man, rising.
“And I disagree!” cried Somov. “If we are to go forward, we must know everything.”
“True, true!” said the curly-headed youth in a low tone.
A heated discussion ensued; and the words flashed like tongues of fire in a wood pile. The mother did not understand what they were shouting about. All faces glowed in an aureole of animation, but none grew angry, no one spoke the harsh, offensive words so familiar to her.
“They restrain themselves on account of a woman’s presence,” she concluded.
The serious face of Natasha pleased her. The young woman looked at all these young men so considerately, with the air of an elder person toward children.
“Wait, comrades,” she broke out suddenly. And they all grew silent and turned their eyes upon her.
“Those who say that we ought to know everything are right. We ought to illumine ourselves with the light of reason, so that the people in the dark may see us; we ought to be able to answer every question honestly and truly. We must know all the truth, all the falsehood.”
The Little Russian listened and nodded his head in accompaniment to her words. Vyesovshchikov, the red-haired fellow, and the other factory worker, who had come with Pavel, stood in a close circle of three. For some reason the mother did not like them.
When Natasha ceased talking, Pavel arose and asked calmly:
“Is filling our stomachs the only thing we want?”
“No!” he answered himself, looking hard in the direction of the three. “We want to be people. We must show those who sit on our necks, and cover up our eyes, that we see everything, that we are not foolish, we are not animals, and that we do not want merely to eat, but also to live like decent human beings. We must show our enemies that our life of servitude, of hard toil which they impose upon us, does not hinder us from measuring up to them in intellect, and as to spirit, that we rise far above them!”
The mother listened to his words, and a feeling of pride in her son stirred her bosom — how eloquently he spoke!
“People with well-filled stomachs are, after all, not a few, but honest people there are none,” said the little Russian. “We ought to build a bridge across the bog of this rotten life to a future of soulful goodness. That’s our task, that’s what we have to do, comrades!”
“When the time is come to fight, it’s not the time to cure the finger,” said Vyesovshchikov dully.
“There will be enough breaking of our bones before we get to fighting!” the Little Russian put in merrily.
It was already past midnight when the group began to break up. The first to go were Vyesovshchikov and the red-haired man — which again displeased the mother.
“Hm! How they hurry!” she thought, nodding them a not very friendly farewell.
“Will you see me home, Nakhodka?” asked Natasha.
“Why, of course,” answered the Little Russian.
When Natasha put on her wraps in the kitchen, the mother said to her: “Your stockings are too thin for this time of the year. Let me knit some woolen ones for you, will you, please?”
“Thank you, Pelagueya Nilovna. Woolen stockings scratch,” Natasha answered, smiling.
“I’ll make them so they won’t scratch.”
Natasha looked at her rather perplexedly, and her fixed serious glance hurt the mother.
“Pardon me my stupidity; like my good will, it’s from my heart, you know,” she added in a low voice.
“How kind you are!” Natasha answered in the same voice, giving her a hasty pressure of the hand and walking out.
“Good night, mother!” said the Little Russian, looking into her eyes. His bending body followed Natasha out to the porch.
The mother looked at her son. He stood in the room at the door and smiled.
“The evening was fine,” he declared, nodding his head energetically. “It was fine! But now I think you’d better go to bed; it’s time.”
“And it’s time for you, too. I’m going in a minute.”
She busied herself about the table gathering the dishes together, satisfied and even glowing with a pleasurable agitation. She was glad that everything had gone so well and had ended peaceably.
“You arranged it nicely, Pavlusha. They certainly are good people. The Little Russian is such a hearty fellow. And the young lady, what a bright, wise girl she is! Who is she?”
“A teacher,” answered Pavel, pacing up and down the room.
“Ah! Such a poor thing! Dressed so poorly! Ah, so poorly! It doesn’t take long to catch a cold. And where are her relatives?”
“In Moscow,” said Pavel, stopping before his mother. “Look! her father is a rich man; he is in the hardware business, and owns much property. He drove her out of the house because she got into this movement. She grew up in comfort and warmth, she was coddled and indulged in everything she desired — and now she walks four miles at night all by herself.”
The mother was shocked. She stood in the middle of the room, and looked mutely at her son. Then she asked quietly:
“Is she going to the city?”
“And is she not afraid?”
“No,” said Pavel smiling.
“Why did she go? She could have stayed here overnight, and slept with me.”
“That wouldn’t do. She might have been seen here to-morrow morning, and we don’t want that; nor does she.”
The mother recollected her previous anxieties, looked thoughtfully through the window, and asked:
“I cannot understand, Pasha, what there is dangerous in all this, or illegal. Why, you are not doing anything bad, are you?”
She was not quite assured of the safety and propriety of his conduct, and was eager for a confirmation from her son. But he looked calmly into her eyes, and declared in a firm voice:
“There is nothing bad in what we’re doing, and there’s not going to be. And yet the prison is awaiting us all. You may as well know it.”
Her hands trembled. “Maybe God will grant you escape somehow,” she said with sunken voice.
“No,” said the son kindly, but decidedly. “I cannot lie to you. We will not escape.” He smiled. “Now go to bed. You are tired. Good night.”
Left alone, she walked up to the window, and stood there looking into the street. Outside it was cold and cheerless. The wind howled, blowing the snow from the roofs of the little sleeping houses. Striking against the walls and whispering something, quickly it fell upon the ground and drifted the white clouds of dry snowflakes across the street.
“O Christ in heaven, have mercy upon us!” prayed the mother.
The tears began to gather in her eyes, as fear returned persistently to her heart, and like a moth in the night she seemed to see fluttering the woe of which her son spoke with such composure and assurance.
Before her eyes as she gazed a smooth plain of snow spread out in the distance. The wind, carrying white, shaggy masses, raced over the plain, piping cold, shrill whistles. Across the snowy expanse moved a girl’s figure, dark and solitary, rocking to and fro. The wind fluttered her dress, clogged her footsteps, and drove pricking snowflakes into her face. Walking was difficult; the little feet sank into the snow. Cold and fearful the girl bent forward, like a blade of grass, the sport of the wanton wind. To the right of her on the marsh stood the dark wall of the forest; the bare birches and aspens quivered and rustled with a mournful cry. Yonder in the distance, before her, the lights of the city glimmered dimly.
“Lord in heaven, have mercy!” the mother muttered again, shuddering with the cold and horror of an unformed fear.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55