Spring had come.
In a little town some sixty versts from the manor, in the opposite direction from Stavrukovo, there was a wonderworking Catholic icon, the miraculous powers of which had been assessed with some precision by people versed in matters of this kind. Anyone who came on foot to honour this icon on its fete day was entitled to twenty days' "remission"—in other words, to complete absolution in the other world from any sin or crime committed here on earth in the course of twenty days. And so every year, on a certain day of early spring, the little town would come to life. The old church, decked out for its fete in the first green branches, the first flowers of spring, would send the joyous clamour of its bell echoing over all the town. There would be a constant rumble of carriage wheels, and the streets and squares, even the fields far round about, would be thronged with pilgrims come on foot. Nor were all of these pilgrims Catholics. The fame of the icon had travelled very far, _and it attracted anguished and distressed of the Orthodox faith as well—city folk, in their majority.
The flood of people on the church road, when the great day came, was vast and colourful this year as always. To an observer looking down on the scene from one of the near-by hilltops, the pressing crowds might well have seemed one living whole: some gigantic serpent stretched out along the road, inert and still—only its lustreless, varicoloured scales stirring and shifting with its heavy breathing. And to either side of the teeming roadway stood the beggars, two endless lines of beggars, stretching out their hands for alms.
Leaning heavily on his crutches, Maxim moved slowly down one of the streets leading away to the outskirts of the town. Pyotr walked beside him, with Iochim.
They had left behind them the clamour of the crowd, the cries of the Jewish peddlers, the rumble of wheels—all the hubbub and uproar that rolled from end to end of the church road. At this distance, it merged into one vast, dull wave of sound—now rising, now falling, never ceasing. Here too, however, though the throng was less, there was a constant tramp of feet, and murmur of voices, and rustling of wheels on the dusty road. Once, a whole train of ox-carts came squeaking past and turned into a near-by side-street.
The day was cold, and Pyotr, following passively wherever Maxim turned, kept drawing his coat closer about him. Absently, he listened to the hubbub in the streets; but his mind was busy, even here, with those painful seekings that now occupied him constantly.
And then, through this selfish preoccupation, a new sound caught his ear—caught it so forcefully that he threw up his head, and stopped abruptly.
They had reached the edge of the town, where the last rows of houses gave way to long lines of fencing and plots of wasteland, and, finally, the street widened into a broad highway, stretching away between open fields. At this widening of street into road, pious hands had in some past day set up a stone pillar bearing an icon and a lantern. The lantern, true, was never lit; but it swung, creaking, on its hook in every wind. And at the foot of this pillar huddled a group of blind beggars, crowded out of all the better stands by less handicapped competitors. They held each a wooden alms-bowl in his hands; and from time to time one or another of them would raise his voice in a plaintive chant:
"A-alms for the bli-ind! Alms, in Christ's name!"
It was cold, and the beggars had been there since morning. There was nothing to shelter them from the fresh wind that blew in from the fields. They could not even move about, like others, with the crowd, to warm their limbs. And their voices, raised by turn in their dreary chant, were burdened with unreasoning, inarticulate complaint—with the misery of bodily suffering and of utter helplessness. After the first few notes their cramped chests would fail them, and the chant would fade into a dismal mumbling, that died away in a long, shivering sigh. But even these last, faintest notes, all but drowned in the clamour of the streets, brought to any human ear that caught them a shocked, almost incredulous realisation of the immensity of suffering behind them.
Pyotr stopped abruptly, his face twisted with pain—as though the beggars' wretched wailing were some grim auricular spectre, rising in his path.
"What are you frightened at?" Maxim asked him. "What you hear are those same fortunate souls you were so envious of, not long ago. Blind beggars, asking alms. They're feeling the cold a bit, of course. But, according to you, that should only make them happier."
"Come away from here!" Pyotr cried, seizing Maxim's arm.
"Ah, you want to come away, then! And is that your only response to other people's suffering? No, stop awhile. I've been wanting to have a serious talk with you, and this is a very good place for what I have to say. Well, then—you keep grumbling because times have changed, and blind youths aren't cut down any more in battle by night, like that young bandurist—Yurko. You chafe because you've no one to curse like Yegor in his belfry. And in your heart you do curse, too—curse your own people, because they've deprived you of the bliss life brings these beggars. And—on my honour!—you may be right. Yes, on the honour of an old soldier, any man has the right to choose his own way in life. And you're a man already. So that—listen, now, to what I have to say. If you make up your mind to remedy our mistake; if you decide to flout your fate, to throw up all the privileges life has given you from the cradle, and try the lot of these unfortunates—I, Maxim Yatsenko, promise you my respect, and help, and support. Do you hear me, Pyotr? I wasn't much older than you are now, when I threw myself into fire and battle. My mother wept for me, just as yours will for you. But, the devil take it all, I feel I had the right to do as I did, just as you have that right now. Once in a lifetime, fate gives any man the chance to choose. And so, you need only say the word...."
Maxim broke off and, turning towards the beggars, shouted,
"Fyodor Kandiba! Are you there?"
"Here I am," one of the cracked voices replied. "Is that you, Maxim Mikhailovich?"
"Yes. Come where I told you, a week from today."
"I'll be there," the beggar answered, and once more took up the endless chant.
Maxim's eyes were flashing.
"There you'll meet a man," he said, "who really has the right to grumble against fate, and against his fellow-men. Perhaps you'll learn from him to shoulder your burden, instead of—"
"Come, come away from here," Iochim broke in. He tugged at Pyotr's arm, with an angry look at Maxim.
"Oh, no!" Maxim cried wrathfully. "There's no one yet passed blind beggars by without throwing them a copper, if he can't give more. Do you mean to run off without doing even that? Blaspheme—that's all you know how to do! It's easy to envy other people's hunger, when your own belly's full!"
Pyotr threw back his head as though a whip had struck him. Pulling out his purse, he moved quickly towards the huddled group of beggars. When his groping stick touched the feet of the nearest of them, he bent over him, feeling for the wooden alms-bowl, and carefully laid his money on the pile of coppers in it. Several passers-by stopped to stare at this handsome youth, so clearly of the gentry, fumblingly giving alms to a blind beggar who as fumblingly received them.
But Maxim turned sharply away, and stumped off up the street. His face was flushed, his eyes blazing. He had been seized, evidently, by one of those violent fits of anger that had been so well known to all his acquaintances in his youth. And he was no longer a pedagogue, weighing and choosing every word. He was a man impassioned, giving full rein to his hot wrath. Only later, after a sidelong glance at Pyotr, did his anger seem to subside. Pyotr was white as chalk. His brows were drawn sharply together, and his face betrayed his deep agitation.
The cold wind set the dust whirling about them as they walked on though the streets of the little town. Behind them, they could hear the blind beggars squabbling over the money Pyotr had given.