Sound impressions had now definitely become dominant in the blind boy's life, the chief form in which his thoughts were shaped, the focus of his mental processes. He would remember songs because their melodies won his heart; and their content, to him, would be coloured with the melancholy, or the merriment, or the dreaminess of their music. More attentively even than before, he listened for the voices of Nature around him. And, fusing his own sense impressions with the loved melodies that had surrounded him from childhood, he was able, at times, to express himself musically, in free improvisations in which it would have been difficult to pick out what was his own, and what taken from the folk songs he knew so well. Not even he himself could distinguish these two elements in his music—so wholly were they merged within him. His mother was teaching him to play the piano, and he was quick to master all her lessons; but he did not lose his love of Iochim's pipe. The piano was richer, fuller, stronger. But the piano was bound to the house, whereas the pipe could be carried along everywhere, and its music blended so completely with the steppe's soft breathing that Petro could not always have said what it was that brought the vague, new thoughts that filled his mind—the wind from far places, or the music he himself was playing.
This passion for music became the core of the boy's mental development, bringing interest and variety into his life. Maxim took advantage of it to give the boy a knowledge of his country's history, woven of sound. His interest seized by a song, the child would learn about its heroes and their stories, and through these—the story of his motherland. This, in its turn, aroused an interest in literature. And when the boy was eight Maxim undertook his first regular instruction. He had made a special study of methods for teaching the blind, and the boy derived much pleasure from his lessons. They brought a new element into life, a positiveness and clarity that served as a balance to the more vague sensations of music.
Thus, the days were well occupied, and there was no lack of new impressions. The boy's life might have been thought as full as any child's can be. He seemed not even to realise his blindness.
And still, there was a strange, unchildlike melancholy in his nature, coming often to the surface. Maxim attributed it to the lack of playmates, and did what he could to supply this need.
Little boys from the village were invited to come and play at the manor. But they were bashful and constrained. The unaccustomed surroundings—and, too, Petro's blindness—made them uncomfortable. They would huddle together, whispering timidly to one another when they could muster up the courage, and casting awed glances at the blind boy. Out of doors, in the garden or off in the fields, they would feel more at ease, and begin to play; but, somehow, Petro was always left out of these games. He could only listen, with wistful longing, to the merry tumult.
Sometimes Iochim would gather the children around him and tell them stories. He knew all sorts of jolly folk tales. The village youngsters, familiar from birth with the addle-pated imps and the artful witches of Ukrainian folklore, would break in with stories of their own, and the time would pass in lively talk and laughter. Petro always listened attentively, with evident interest; but he seldom smiled. Much of the humour, evidently, failed to reach him—and small wonder; for, after all, he could not see the glint in Iochim's eyes, or the laughter in his very wrinkles, or the way he twitched his long, drooping moustache.
Shortly before the period we have been describing, there had been a change of possessor* on a small neighbouring estate. [ Under a rental system widely in use in the South-West Territory, the tenant (or "possessor", as he is called) is somewhat in the position of an estate manager. He pays the owner a definite sum; and what he himself will make on the estate, once that sum is paid, depends upon his own ability and enterprise.] In place of the former troublesome occupant, with whom even quiet Pan Popelsky had been drawn into litigation over a field some cattle had trampled, the estate was now held by an elderly couple—one Pan Yaskulsky and his wife. These two, though their ages, put together, totalled over a hundred, had been married only a few years. Pan Yaskulsky had had a long, hard struggle, working as a steward on other people's property, before he could get together enough money to rent an estate for his own use; and Panna Agnieszka, all those long years, had lived with the Countess Potocka, in the capacity of a more or less honorary lady's maid. So that, when their happy hour had struck at last, and they stood together before the altar, there had been as much grey as dark in the dashing bridegroom's hair and moustache, and the curls that framed the blushing face of the bride had begun to silver.
But the silver in their hair had not marred their conjugal felicity; and their belated love had borne fruit in an only daughter, of almost the same age as the blind boy.
Having attained for their old age a home that, conditionally at least, they might call their own, the aging couple had settled down in it to a simple, quiet life that might make up to them, in its peace and solitude, for their strenuous years of drudgery for others. Their first venture had not worked out too well, and they had had to try again, on this rather small estate. But here, too, they had settled down at once to their own way of life. With the willow branch and the "thunder candle"] in the icon corner, by the ivy-twined images, Pani Yaskulskaya kept always a supply of herbs and roots, to treat her husband's ailments and those of the village folk who came to her for help. These herbs filled the whole house with a peculiar fragrance, which would come back invariably, even to chance visitors, at every recollection of the little home, so neat and clean and peaceful, or of the aging couple who had settled there, or of the tranquil life they lived—a strange life, somehow, in our day.
[A wax candle that is lit during bad storms, or to be held by the dying.
And with these two old people lived their only daughter— a little girl with sky-blue eyes, and long, fair hair that she wore braided down her back; a child of an uncommon staidness, in her whole little being, that immediately struck everyone who met her. It was as though the tranquillity of the parents' elderly love had come down to the daughter, finding expression in an unchildlike sobriety, a gentle quietness of movement, a look of thoughtfulness that never left the depths of her blue eyes. The little girl was never timid or shy with strangers. She did not avoid other children, but joined willingly in their games. Yet, always, there was a sort of kindly condescension in her manner, as though—for herself—she had no need of such amusement. And, true enough, she could be perfectly happy all alone—wandering through the fields, gathering flowers, or talking to her doll, all with so sedate an air that she often seemed less a child than a tiny woman.