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She gasped for breath and, gulping at the air greedily, like a fish pulled out of water, she leant forward and continued, lowering her voice:
“My husband died, I clutched at my son – and he set off on all this business. And then I began to feel bad, and sorry for him… If he’s lost to me, how am I to live? I’ve been through so much fear and anxiety, my heart would break apart when I thought about his fate…”
She fell silent, and then, shaking her head quietly, said in a meaningful voice:
“It’s not pure, our women’s love!… We love what we need. But now I look at you, and you’re pining for your mother – what do you want her for? And all the others, suffering for the people, they’re going to prison and to Siberia; they’re dying… Young girls walk about at night, alone, through the mud, through the snow, into the rain; they walk seven versts to us out here from town. Who’s driving them on, who’s pushing them? They have love! Now theirs is pure love! They believe! They believe, Andryusha! But I don’t know how to be like that! I love what’s my own, what’s close to me!”
“You can do it!” said the Ukrainian and, turning his face away from her, he rubbed his head, cheek and eyes hard, as always, with his hands. “Everyone loves what’s close to them, but in a big heart, what’s far away is close to you too. You can do a lot. The maternal instinct is strong in you…”
“God grant!” she said quietly. “I can sense, you know, that it’s good to live that way! Now, I love you, and maybe I love you more than I do Pasha. He’s private… There he is, wanting to marry Sashenka, but he hasn’t told me, his mother, about it…”
“That’s not true!” the Ukrainian objected. “I know it. It’s not true. He loves her and she him – that’s true. But marrying – it’s not going to happen, no! She’d like to, but Pavel doesn’t want to…”
“Is that how it is?” the mother said quietly and pensively, and her eyes came sadly to a halt on the Ukrainian’s face. “Yes. Is that how it is? People denying themselves…”
“Pavel’s a rare man!” the Ukrainian pronounced quietly. “A man of iron…”
“And now he’s in prison!” the mother continued thoughtfully. “It’s worrying, it’s frightening, but not excessively so! Life as a whole’s not the same, and the fear’s different – I’m worried for everyone. And my heart’s different – my soul’s opened its eyes and it’s looking: it feels sad and joyous. There’s a lot I don’t understand, and I feel so hurt, so bitter that you don’t believe in the Lord God! Well, there’s nothing to be done about that! But I can see that you’re good people, yes! And you’ve condemned yourselves to a hard life for the people, to a difficult life for the truth. I’ve understood your truth as well: while the rich are still there, the people will get nothing, neither truth, nor joy, nothing! Here am I, living among you, and sometimes in the night I remember what there was before, my strength trampled underfoot, my young heart downtrodden, and I feel sorry for myself, and bitter! But all the same, my life’s become better. More and more I can see myself…”
The Ukrainian stood up and, trying not to shuffle his feet, began carefully walking around the room – tall, thin and pensive.
“You put it well!” he exclaimed quietly. “Well. There was a young Jew in Kerch who wrote verse, and one day he wrote this:
“Those who’re innocently slaughtered
Truth’s power shall resurrect!…
“He himself was killed by the police there in Kerch, but that’s unimportant! He knew the truth and sowed a lot of it among the people. Well, and you’re a person innocently slaughtered…”
“I talk now,” the mother continued. “I talk and listen to myself, and I can’t believe myself. All my life I thought about one thing, how to give the day a wide berth, to live it unnoticed, just so that nobody touched me. But now I think about everyone, and maybe I don’t understand your affairs properly, but everyone’s dear to me, I feel sorry for everyone, I want good things for everyone. And for you, Andryusha, especially!…”
He went up to her and said:
He took her hand in both of his, squeezed it tight, shook it and quickly turned aside. Exhausted by her agitation, the mother unhurriedly washed the cups in silence, and in her breast there was the quiet glimmer of a bright, heart-warming feeling.
Pacing about, the Ukrainian said to her:
“You might be nice to Vesovshchikov one day, nenko! His father’s in prison – a vile little old man he is. Nikolai’ll see him from the window and curse him. That’s not good! He’s kind, Nikolai – he likes dogs, mice and all kinds of creatures, but he doesn’t like people! That’s the extent to which a man can be damaged!”
“His mother went missing, and his father’s a thief and a drunkard,” the woman said pensively.
When Andrei went off to bed, the mother, unnoticed, made the sign of the cross over him, and when he was in bed and about half an hour had passed, she asked quietly:
“Are you asleep, Andryusha?”
“No – what is it?”
“Thank you, nenko, thank you!” he replied gratefully.
The next day, when Nilovna approached the factory gates with her burden, the guards stopped her rudely, ordered her to put the pots down on the ground and examined everything thoroughly.
“You’ll make my food go cold!” she remarked calmly, while they were rudely feeling her clothes.
“Shut up!” said one guard sullenly.
The other, giving her shoulder a little nudge, said confidently:
“I tell you, they’re throwing it over the fence!”
The first to come up to her was old Sizov, and after looking around he asked in a low voice:
“Have you heard, Mother?”
“The leaflets! They’ve appeared again! They’ve sprinkled them everywhere like salt on bread. There’s arrests and searches for you! They took Mazin, my nephew, to prison, well, and what for? They took your son, and now it’s clear – isn’t it? – it wasn’t them!”
He gathered his beard into his hand, looked at her and, as he moved away, said:
“Why don’t you drop in and see me? You must be lonely by yourself…”
She thanked him and, shouting out the names of her food, kept a beady eye on the unusual animation at the factory. Everyone was excited, gathering, dispersing, running from one workshop to another. In the soot-filled air could be sensed a current of something cheerful and bold. Exclamations of approval and cries of derision rang out now here, now there. The older workers grinned cautiously. The management paced about, preoccupied; policemen ran around and, when they noticed them, the workers would slowly disperse or, staying where they were, stop their conversations, gazing silently into embittered, irritated faces.
The workers all seemed to be washed and clean. There were glimpses of the tall figure of the elder Gusev; his brother waddled around chuckling.
The foreman of the joiners’ shop, Vavilov, and the timekeeper, Isai, walked past the mother without haste. The puny little timekeeper, with his head held up high, bent his neck to the left and, gazing at the foreman’s immobile, puffed-up face, said quickly, with his little beard shaking:
“They’re chuckling, Ivan Ivanovich; they’re enjoying it – even though the matter concerns the destruction of the state, as the good director said. We shouldn’t be weeding here, Ivan Ivanovich, we should be ploughing…”
Vavilov walked with his hands behind his back, and his fingers were tightly clenched…
“You can print whatever you want, you son of a bitch,” he said loudly, “but anything about me – don’t you dare!”
Vasily Gusev came up, declaring:
“I’ll have my dinner with you again – it tastes good!”
And lowering his voice and narrowing his eyes,
he added quietly:
“You scored an accurate hit… Oh yes, Mamasha, very good!”
The mother nodded to him affectionately. She liked the fact that this lad, the settlement’s number-one mischief-maker, was polite to her when talking in secret; she liked the general excitement at the factory, and she thought to herself: “And after all, if it hadn’t been for me…”
Three unskilled labourers stopped not far away, and one said regretfully in a low voice:
“Couldn’t find one anywhere…”
“It’d be good to listen to one! I may be illiterate, but I can see they’ve really taken one in the ribs!…” remarked another.
The third looked around and suggested:
“Let’s go to the boiler room…”
“It’s working!” whispered Gusev with a wink.
Nilovna arrived home cheerful.
“There are men there who regret they’re illiterate!” she said to Andrei. “When I was young I knew how to read, but now I’ve forgotten…”
“Do some studying!” the Ukrainian suggested.
“At my age? Why make people laugh…”
But Andrei took a book from the shelf and, pointing with the tip of a knife at a letter on the cover, asked:
“R!” she replied, laughing.
She felt awkward and offended. Andrei’s eyes seemed to be laughing at her with hidden laughter, and she avoided their gaze. But his voice sounded soft and calm, and his face was serious.
“Surely you aren’t really thinking of teaching me, Andryusha?” she asked with an involuntary grin.
“Why not?” he responded. “If you used to read, it’s easy to remember how. If it doesn’t work out – no harm done; and if it does – well done!”
“But it’s like they say: you can look at an icon, but it doesn’t make you a saint!”
“Ha!” said the Ukrainian, nodding his head. “There are so many proverbs. The less you know, the better you sleep – what’s wrong with that? Your stomach thinks in proverbs; it plaits them into bridles for your soul so that it’s easier to control it. And what letter’s this?”
“M for men!” said the mother.
“Right! Look how wide they’ve set their feet apart. Well, and this one?”
Straining her eyes, ponderously moving her eyebrows, she made every effort to remember the forgotten letters and, surrendering imperceptibly to her efforts, became absorbed. But her eyes soon grew tired. At first tears of weariness appeared, and then frequent tears of sorrow began to fall.
“I’m learning to read!” she said, sobbing. “Forty years old, and I’ve only just started learning to read…”
“There’s no need to cry,” said the Ukrainian quietly and gently. “You couldn’t have had a different life, but you understand all the same that you’ve had a bad one! Thousands of people may live better than you, but they live like cattle and, what’s more, they boast: ‘We have a good life!’ But what’s so good about it – today a man’s worked and eaten, and tomorrow he’s worked and eaten, and that’s the way it is in all his years – he works and eats. In between times he gets himself any number of children, and at first they amuse him, but as soon as they begin eating a lot too, he gets angry and curses them: ‘Quick, gluttons, grow up: it’s time to work!’ And he’d like to make domestic livestock of his children, but they start working for their own bellies, and again they drag their lives out like a thief does bast! The only genuine people are the ones who knock the chains off men’s minds. And now, as far as you’re able, that’s what you, too, have set about doing.”
“What do you mean, me?” she sighed. “What can I do?”
“Why not? It’s like rain – every drop waters the seed. And when you start reading…”
He laughed, stood up and began walking around the room.
“No, you must study!… Pavel will come back, and you – oho!”
“Oh, Andryusha!” the mother said. “Everything’s simple for the young. But once you’ve lived a while, you’ve got a whole lot of woe, very little strength and no sense at all…”
In the evening, when the Ukrainian went out, she lit the lamp and sat down at the table to knit a stocking. But she soon got up, paced around the room indecisively, went out into the kitchen, put the latch down on the door and, twitching her eyebrows urgently, returned to the other room. She lowered the blinds at the windows and, taking a book from the shelf, sat down again at the table, looked around, bent over the book, and her lips began to stir. When there was noise coming from the street, she would give a start and cover the book with her palm, listening keenly… And then again, now closing her eyes, now opening them, she would whisper:
“L I – li, F, E…”
There was a knock at the door, and the mother leapt up, thrust the book onto the shelf and asked in alarm:
In came Rybin and, stroking his beard sedately, he remarked:
“You used to let people in without asking. Are you alone? Right. I thought the Ukrainian was at home. I saw him today… Prison does a man no harm.”
He sat down and said to the mother:
“Let’s have a talk…”
His gaze was meaningful, mysterious, and inspired in the mother a vague disquiet.
“Everything costs money!” he began in his heavy voice. “You’re not born for nothing, and don’t die for nothing – there. And booklets and leaflets cost money. Do you know where the money for the booklets comes from?”
“No, I don’t,” the mother said quietly, sensing something dangerous.
“Right. I don’t either. The second thing – who puts the books together?”
“Gentlefolk!” said Rybin, and his bearded face tensed and reddened. “So it’s gentlefolk that put the books together and them that distribute them. And written in those booklets are things against gentlefolk. Now, you tell me, what’s the benefit to them of spending money to raise the people against them?”
Blinking, the mother cried out fearfully: “What are you thinking?…”
“Aha!” said Rybin, and he began turning slowly on his chair. “There. Me too, when I arrived at that thought – I turned cold.”
“Have you discovered anything?”
“Deceit!” Rybin replied. “I can sense deceit. I don’t know anything, but there is deceit. There. The gentlefolk are doing something cunning. And I need the truth. And I’ve understood the truth. And I won’t go with gentlefolk. When they need to, they’ll push me over, and they’ll stride on ahead across my bones, as though they were a bridge…”
It was as if he were binding the mother’s heart with his morose words.
“Lord!” the mother exclaimed in anguish. “Doesn’t Pasha understand? And everyone that…”
Before her flashed the serious, honest faces of Yegor, Nikolai Ivanovich, Sashenka, and her heart began beating faster.
“No, no!” she said, shaking her head in denial. “I can’t believe it. They’re people of conscience.”
“Who are you talking about?” asked Rybin pensively.
“All of them… all of them that I’ve seen, every last one!”
“You’re looking in the wrong place, mother – look further afield!” said Rybin, lowering his head. “Those who’ve come close to us, maybe they know nothing themselves. They believe it’s the way it should be! But maybe there are others behind them who just want some profit? A man won’t go against himself for nothing…”
And with the heavy conviction of a peasant he added:
“There’ll never be anything good coming from gentlefolk!”
“What have you got in mind?” the mother asked, once again gripp
ed by doubt.
“Me?” Rybin glanced at her, paused and repeated: “You need to steer well clear of gentlefolk. There.”
Then he paused again, morose.
“I wanted to join myself to the lads, to be with them. I’m suited to this cause; I know what needs to be said to people. There. Well, but now I’m going away. I can’t believe, so I have to go away.”
He lowered his head and had a think.
“I’m going to go around the villages and hamlets by myself. I’m going to rouse the people to revolt. The people themselves need to take it up. If they can understand, they’ll open up paths for themselves. So I’m going to try and get them to understand that they have no hope apart from themselves; they have no reason but their own. That’s the way of it!”
She began to feel sorry for this man; she felt fear for him. She had always found him unpleasant, but now he had suddenly come closer somehow; quietly she said:
“They’ll catch you…”