It is spring-time, the sun shines brightly, and everyone is gay. Even the window-panes of the old stone houses seem to wear a cheerful smile.
Along the street of the little town streams a crowd in bright holiday attire. The whole population of the town is there: workers, soldiers, tradespeople, priests, officials, fishermen; all are intoxicated with the spirit of spring-time, talking, laughing, singing in joyous confusion, as if they were a single body overflowing with the zest of life.
The hats and parasols of the women make a medley of bright colours; red and blue balloons, like wonderful flowers, float from the hands of the children; and children, merry lords of the earth, laughing and rejoicing, are everywhere, like gems on the gorgeous cloak of a fairy prince.
It’s a bright spring holiday everyone in town, save for one young man and his wife.
This story is from Maxim Gorky’s collection “Tales of Two Countries,” which is available at Project Gutenberg.
The tender green leaves of the trees have not yet unfolded; they are sheathed in gorgeous buds, greedily drinking in the warm rays of the sun. Far off the sun smiles gently and seems to beckon us.
The impression seems to prevail that people have outlived their misfortunes, that yesterday was the last day of the hard shameful life that wearied them to death. To-day they have all awakened in high spirits, like schoolboys, with a strong, clear faith in themselves, in the invincibility of their will to overcome all obstacles, and now, all together, they march boldly into the future.
It was strange—strange and sad and suddenly depressing—to notice a sorrowful face in this lively crowd: it was that of a tall, strongly built man, not yet over thirty but already grey, who passed arm-in-arm with a young woman. He carried his hat in his hand, the hair on his shapely head glistened like silver, his thin but healthy face was calm and destined to remain for ever sad. The eyes, large and dark, and shaded by long lashes, were those of a man who cannot forget—who will never forget—the acute suffering through which he has passed.
“Notice that couple,” said my companion to me, “especially the man: he has lived through one of those dramas which are enacted more and more frequently amongst the workers of Northern Italy.”
And my companion went on:
That man is a socialist, the editor of a local Labour paper, a workman himself, a painter. He is one of those characters for whom science becomes a religion, and a religion that still more incites the thirst for knowledge. A keen and clever Anti-Clerical he was—just note what fierce looks the black priests send after him.
About five years ago he, a propagandist, met in one of his circles a girl who at once attracted his attention. Here women have learnt to believe silently and steadfastly; the priests have cultivated this ability in them for many centuries, and have achieved what they wished. Somebody rightly said that the Catholic Church has been built up on the breast of womankind. The cult of the Madonna is not only beautiful, as such heathen practices go, it is first of all a clever cult. The Madonna is simpler than Christ, she is nearer to one’s heart, there are no contradictions in her, she does not threaten with Gehenna—she only loves, pities, forgives—it is easy for her to make a captive of a woman’s heart for life.
But there he sees a girl who can speak, can inquire; and in all her questions he perceives, side by side with her naïve wonderment at his ideas, an undisguised lack of belief in him, and sometimes even fear and repulsion. The Italian propagandist has to speak a great deal about religion, to say incisive things about the Pope and the clergy; every time he spoke on that subject he saw contempt and hate for him in the eyes of the girl; if she asked about anything her words sounded unfriendly and her soft voice breathed poison. It was evident that she was acquainted with Catholic literature directed against socialism, and that in this circle her word had as much weight as his own.
Until latterly the attitude here towards women was far more vulgar and much coarser than in Russia, and the Italian women were themselves to blame for this; taking no interest in anything except the Church, they were for the most part strangers to the work of social advancement carried on by men and did not understand its meaning.
The man’s self-love was wounded, the clever propagandist’s fame suffered in the collisions with the girl; he got angry; lost his temper; occasionally he ridiculed her successfully, but she paid him back in his own coin, evoking his involuntary admiration, forcing him carefully to prepare the lectures he had to give to the circle she attended.
In addition to all this he noticed that every time he came to speak about the present shameful state of things, how man was being oppressed, his body and his soul mutilated—whenever he drew pictures of the life of the future when all will be both outwardly and inwardly free—he noticed that she was quite another being: she listened to his speeches, stifling the anger of a strong and clever woman who knows the weight of life’s chains; listened to them with the rapt eagerness of a child that is told a fairy tale which is in harmony with its own magically complex soul.
This excited in him the anticipation of victory over a strong foe—a foe who could be a fine comrade, a valiant champion in the cause of a better future.
The rivalry between them lasted nearly a year, without calling forth any desire in them to join issue and fight their battle out; at length he made the first advance.
“Signorina is my constant opponent,” he said, “does she not think that in the interests of the cause it would be better if we were to become more closely acquainted?”
She willingly fell in with his suggestion, and almost from the first word they entered upon a spirited contest: the girl fiercely defended the Church as the only place where the souls of the weary find rest, where before the face of the Madonna all are equal and equally pitiable, notwithstanding the differences in worldly seeming. He replied that it was not rest that people needed but struggle, that civic equality is impossible without equality in material things, and that behind the cloak of the Madonna is concealed a man to whom it is advantageous that people should remain miserable and unenlightened.
Thereafter these discussions filled their whole life, every meeting was a continuation of the one same endless, passionate theme, and every day the stubborn strength of their beliefs became more and more evident.
For him life was a struggle for the widening of knowledge, for the conquest of the forces of Nature, a struggle for the subjugation of mysterious energies to the will of man. It was meet that everybody should be equally armed for this struggle, which was to issue in Freedom and the triumph of Reason—the most powerful of all forces, and the only force in the world which acts consciously. For her life was a slow and painful sacrifice of man to the Unknown, the subjugation of Reason to that will the laws and aims of which are known to the priest only.
Nonplussed by this, he inquired: “Why do you attend my lectures and what do you expect from socialism?”
“Yes, I know that I sin and contradict myself!” she confessed sorrowfully. “But it is pleasant to listen to you and to dream about the possibility of happiness for all!”
Though not specially pretty she was slim and graceful, with an intelligent face, and large eyes, whose glance could be mild or angry, gentle or severe. She worked in a silk factory, lived with her old mother, her one-legged father and a younger sister who was attending a technical school. Sometimes she was happy, not boisterously, but quietly happy; she was fond of museums and old churches, grew enthusiastic over pictures and the beauty of which they were the token, and looking at them would say: “How strange it is to think that these things have been hidden in private houses and that but one person had the right to enjoy them! Everybody must see the beautiful, for only then does it live!”
She often spoke in so strange a manner that it seemed to him that her words came from some dark crevice in her soul; they reminded him of the groans of a wounded man. He felt that this girl loved life and mankind with that deep mother love which is full of anxiety and compassion; he waited patiently till his faith should kindle her heart and this quiet love change to passion. The girl appeared to him to listen more attentively to his speeches and, in her heart, to be in agreement with him. And he spoke more passionately of the need for an incessant, active struggle for the emancipation of man, of the nation, of humanity as a whole, from the old chains, the rust of which had eaten into their souls, and was blighting and poisoning them.
Once, while accompanying her home, he told her that he loved her, and that he wanted her to be his wife. He was startled at the effect his words had on her: she reeled as though she had been struck, stared with wide-open eyes and turned pale; she leaned against the wall, and said, clasping her hands and looking, almost terrified, into his face: “I was beginning to fear that that might be so; almost I felt it, because I loved you long ago. But, O God! what is going to happen now?”
“Days of your happiness and mine will begin, days of mutual work,” he exclaimed.
“No,” said the girl, her head drooping. “No; we should not have talked about love.”
“Will you be married according to the laws of the Church?” she asked quietly.
And she walked quickly away from him.
He overtook her, tried to persuade her; she heard him out in silence and then said: “I, my mother and my father are all believers, and will die believers. Marriage at the registrar’s is no marriage for me; if children are born of such a marriage I know they will be unhappy. Love is consecrated only by marriage in a church, which alone can give happiness and peace.”
It seemed to him that soon she would yield; he, of course, could not give in. They parted. As she bade him good-bye the girl said: “Let us not torment each other, don’t seek meetings with me. Oh, if only you would go away from here! I cannot, I am so poor.”
“I will make no promises,” he replied.
The struggle between two strong natures began: they met, of course, and even more often than before; they met because they loved each other, sought meetings in the hope that one or other of them would be unable to stand the torments of an ungratified longing which was becoming more and more intense. Their meetings were full of anguish and despair; after each one he felt quite worn out and exhausted; she, all in tears, went to confess to a priest. He knew this and it seemed to him that the black wall of people in tonsures became stronger, higher and more insurmountable every day, that it grew and parted them till death.
Once, on a holiday, while walking with her through a field outside the town, he said, not threateningly, but more as if to himself: “Do you know, it seems to me sometimes that I could kill you.”
She remained silent.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Looking at him affectionately she answered: “Yes.”
And he understood that she would rather die than give in to him. Before this “yes” he had embraced and kissed her sometimes; she struggled with him, but her resistance was becoming feebler, and he cherished the hope that someday she would yield, and that then her woman’s instinct would help him to conquer. But now he understood that that would not be victory, but enslavement, and from that day on he ceased to appeal to the woman in her.
So he wandered with her in the dark circle of her life’s horizon, lit all the beacons before her that he could; but she listened to him with the dreamy smile of the blind, saw nothing, believed him not.
Once she said: “I understand sometimes that all you say is possible, but I think that is because I love you! I understand, but I do not believe, I cannot believe! As soon as you go away all that is of you goes away too.”
This drama lasted nearly two years, and then the girl’s health broke down: she became seriously ill. He gave up his employment, ceased to attend to the work of his organisation, got into debt. Avoiding his comrades, he spent his time wandering round her lodgings; or sat at her bedside, watching her wasting from disease and becoming more transparent every day, noting how the fire of fever glowed more and more brightly in her eyes.
“Speak to me of life, of the future,” she asked him.
But he spoke of the present, enumerating vindictively everything that crushes us, all those things against which he was vowed to a lifelong struggle; he spoke of things that ought to be cast out of men’s lives, as one discards soiled and worn-out rags.
She listened until the pain it gave her became unbearable; then touched his hand, and stopped him with an imploring look.
“I, am I dying?” she asked him once, many days after the doctor had told him that she was in a galloping consumption and that her condition was hopeless.
He bowed his head but did not answer.
“I know that I shall die soon,” she said. “Give me your hand.”
And, taking his outstretched hand, she pressed it to her burning lips and said:
“Forgive me, I have done you wrong. It was all a mistake—and I have worn you out. Now when I am struck down I see that my faith was only fear before what I could not understand, notwithstanding my desire and my efforts. It was fear, but it was in my blood, I was born with it. I have my own mind—or yours—but somebody else’s heart; you are right, I understand it now, but my heart could not agree with you.”
A few days later she died; he turned grey during her agony; he was only twenty-seven.
Not long ago he married the only friend of that girl, his pupil. It is they who go to the cemetery, to her—they go there every Sunday and place flowers on her grave.
He does not believe in his victory, he is convinced that when she said to him: “You are right,” she lied to him in order to console him. His wife thinks the same; they both lovingly revere her memory. This sad episode of a good woman who perished gives them strength by filling them with a desire to avenge her; it gives their mutual work a strangely fascinating character, and renders them untiring in their efforts.
The river of gaily dressed people streams on in the sunshine; a merry noise accompanies its flow: children shout and laugh. Not everyone is gay and joyful; there are many hearts, no doubt, oppressed by dark sorrow, many minds tormented by contradictions; but we all go steadily forward. And “Freedom, Freedom is our goal!”
And the more vigour we put into it the faster we shall advance!