The ice had been broken. The next day the boy ventured, timid, but curious, into the drawing-room, which he had not entered since the day the strange new-comer, so noisy and bad-tempered, as it seemed to him, had been established there. The new-comer's songs, last evening, had conquered his delicate ear and overcome his prejudice. With only a faint trace of his earlier fear, he came towards the piano. A step or two away he paused, and stood listening. There was no one there. The mother, sewing in an adjoining room, watched him breathlessly, admiring his every movement, every change of expression in his nervous features.
From where he stood, he stretched out a hand and touched the polished surface of the piano—and at once drew timidly away. He tried again, and once again—then came up closer and began to examine the instrument carefully, moving all around it, bending to the floor to follow the lines of its legs. And finally his fingers touched the keys.
A faint, hesitant note trembled in the air. The boy stood listening long after all sound had vanished to the mother's ear. Then, absorbed, expectant, he pressed another key. After that, his hand swept across the keyboard, and he struck a new note, in the highest register. He let each tone sound, and tremble, and die away before he touched another; and, as he listened, his face expressed not only intense interest, but enjoyment. He seemed to take pleasure in each individual note, with an artist's sensitive receptiveness to the elements of music, to the separate components of potential melody.
But in each note, besides its sound, the blind boy seemed to feel other distinctive features. When his fingers pressed a clear, joyful note of the upper register, his face, bright with pleasure, would turn upwards, as though following the airy sound in its skyward flight. When he struck a bass note, he would tilt his head downwards to catch the deep vibration, as though feeling that this heavy note must roll low, low, over the very floor, to vanish in the farthest corners of the house.
Uncle Maxim's attitude to all this musical experimentation was barely tolerant. Strange as it might seem, he could not altogether reconcile himself to the boy's leanings, so clearly manifested. On the one hand, of course, this passionate love of music indicated unquestionable talent, and pointed the way to an attainable future. But—on the other hand, the thought of such a future brought the old soldier a feeling of obscure disappointment.
Music, of course, was a great power too, he reflected. With music, one could sway the heart of the mob. Hundreds of fine ladies and dressed-up dandies would crowd to hear the blind musician. He would play them all sorts of ... um ... waltzes, and nocturnes (to tell the truth, Uncle Maxim's knowledge of music hardly went beyond this conception of "waltzes" and "nocturnes"), and they would dry their tears with lacy handkerchiefs. Ah, the devil damn it! That was not what Uncle Maxim had been hoping for. But—what was to be done? The boy was blind. Let him do what he could best succeed in. Only, if it had to be music, let it be song, at least. Song reached deeper than a mere meaningless tickling of the sensitive ear. A song told a story; it aroused the mind to thought, and the heart to courage.
"Look here, Iochim," Maxim exclaimed one evening, coming into the stable with Petro, "can't you drop that pipe of yours for once? It's well enough for shepherd boys, but you're a grown man, after all, for all that silly Marya's made such a calf of you! Ugh! You ought to be ashamed—moping because a girl turned up her nose! Shrilling away on a pipe, like a bird in a cage!" Iochim grinned, in the darkness, at Pan-Maxim's causeless anger. Of all this irascible peroration, only the reference to shepherd boys aroused him to mild protest. "Don't you think it, Pan Maxim," he said. "You won't find such a pipe as this in all the Ukraine. Shepherd boys!
Whistles, that's all they know how to make. A pipe like this... Just you listen!"
He stopped all the finger holes and blew two notes in octave, beaming with pleasure at the full, clear tone. Maxim spat.
"Ugh! God in heaven! The fellow's lost all the brains he ever had! What do I care for your pipe? They're all alike—pipes, and women, and that Marya of yours to boot. Give us a song, if you know any. One of the good old songs.
There's some sense in that."
Ukrainian himself, Maxim Yatsenko was simple and unpretentious in his relations with the peasantry and the manor servants. He often shouted at them, true, but—inoffensively, somehow; and so they treated him with respect, but with no sign of fear.
"A song, is it?" Iochim returned. "Well, and why not? I used to sing, once, no worse than the next fellow. Only—our peasant songs—you might not like them, either."
This last was said with a hint of irony.
"Don't talk foolishness," Maxim exclaimed. "A good song—as if you could compare it with that piping of yours! If a man can sing, of course. Let's listen, then, Petro, while Iochim gives us a song. I wonder, though—will you understand it, youngster?"
"Will it be in serf talk?" the boy asked. "I understand that talk."
Uncle Maxim sighed. There was much of the romantic in his nature, and he had dreamed, once, of a revival of the old days of Cossack glory.
"Those are no serf songs, youngster," he told the child. "They're the songs of a free, strong people. Your mother's forefathers sang them, all through the steppes— along the Dnieper, and the Danube, and the Black Sea coast. Ah, well, you'll understand all that some day. What worries me now—" and his tone was suddenly uneasy—"what worries me now is quite a different thing."
Yes, it was a different understanding that he feared the boy might lack. The vivid pictures drawn by the old epic songs, he thought, could reach the heart only through visual concepts; and, lacking these, the boy's unseeing mind might be unable to master the language of folk poetry. But there was one thing Maxim had forgotten. Were not the ancient boyans, were not the Ukrainian kobzars and bandurists,* in their majority, blind? [ Boyans, kobzars, bandurists—wandering minstrels.—Tr.] True, in many cases it was simply the misfortune that came with blindness that drove them to take up the lyre or the bandura, as a means of begging alms. But not all, by far, of these wandering musicians were mere beggars, singing hoarsely for their bread. And not all of them, either, were old men when they lost their sight. Blindness blots out the visual world behind an impenetrable veil, that weighs down heavily, of course, upon the brain—an oppressive burden, hindering understanding. But there are things that come down by inheritance, and things that are learned through other senses and by other means than sight; and out of these things, for all the darkness, the brain creates a living world of its own—a shadowed world, perhaps; wistful, and melancholy; yet not devoid of a vague poetry.