A few minutes passed.
The little girl stopped crying, except for an occasional sob that she could not altogether stifle. Through a haze of tears, she watched the setting sun. It seemed to be turning, turning, in the incandescent air, as it sank slowly beyond the dark line of the horizon. Now its fiery edge flashed gold again, and a few last blazing sparks flew out; and suddenly the dark outline of the distant forest swam forward in a jagged line of blue.
A cool breath came up from the river. The peace of approaching evening found its reflection in the blind boy's face. He sat with bowed head, perplexed, it seemed, by this hot outpouring of sympathy.
"I feel so sorry," the little girl said, at last, in explanation of her weakness. She was still choking down the rising sobs.
When she had mastered her voice, she made an effort to turn the talk to some indifferent topic, of which they might both speak without emotion.
"The sun's gone down," she murmured.
"I don't know what the sun is like," he answered wistfully.
"I can only ... only feel it."
"Not know the sun?"
"Not what it's like."
"But ... but, then ... well, don't you know your mother, either?"
"I do know Mother. I can always tell her step, from a way off."
"That's so. I always know Mother, too, even if I keep my eyes tight shut."
The talk was calmer now.
"You know," Petro said, brightening a little, "I can feel the sun, after all, and I always know when it sets."
"How can you tell?"
"Well, you see ... well, it's... I can't exactly tell you, how."
"Oh," the little girl returned, evidently perfectly satisfied with his explanation.
Neither spoke for a moment or two. It was Petro who broke the silence.
"I can read," he announced. "And I'll soon learn to write with pen and ink."
"But how..." she began, and broke off suddenly, feeling that this might be too delicate a topic.
Petro understood what she had meant to ask.
"I read in a special book," he said. "With my fingers."
"With your fingers? I'd never be able to! Why, I read badly enough, even with my eyes. Father says women aren't made for learning."
"I can read French, too."
"French! With your fingers! How clever of you," she cried, in genuine admiration. "But look, I'm so afraid you'll be catching cold. There's a great mist coming up along the river."
"What about you, then?"
"I'm not afraid. The mist can't hurt me."
"Well, then, neither am I afraid. How can a man catch cold, if a woman doesn't? Uncle Maxim says a man must never be afraid—not of cold, or hunger, no, nor of thunder, or the heaviest storm-clouds."
"Uncle Maxim? Is that the one that walks with crutches? I've seen him. He's so horrible!"
"He is not horrible. He's just as kind as he can be."
"Ah, but he is," she insisted, with great conviction. "It's because you've never seen him, you can't tell."
"Who can tell, then, if I can't? He teaches me."
"And whips you?"
"Never. Nor scolds me, either. Never, never."
"That's good. Because, how can anybody hurt a blind boy? That would be a sin."
"Why, but he never hurts anyone at all," Petro returned; but he spoke a little absently. His sensitive ear had caught Iochim's approaching footsteps.
A moment later, the stableman's tall figure appeared on a low ridge that lay between the manor and the river, and his voice came ringing through the evening hush:
"You're being called," the little girl said, getting up.
"I know. But I don't feel like going home."
"Ah, but you must. I'll come and visit you tomorrow. Your people will be expecting you now. And I must go home, too."
The little girl kept her promise faithfully, earlier even than Petro could have hoped. Working at his lessons with Maxim, next morning, he suddenly lifted his head, sat listening a moment, and then asked excitedly,
"May I run out a minute? That little girl has come."
"What little girl?" Maxim demanded amazedly.
He followed Petro towards the door.
True enough, the little girl of the day before was just turning in at the manor gate. Anna Mikhailovna happened to be passing through the yard at the moment, and the little visitor went straight up to her, with no sign of embarrassment.
"What is it, dear child?" Anna Mikhailovna asked, thinking the little girl had been sent to her on some errand.
But the tiny woman held out her hand, with great dignity, and asked,
"Is it you has a blind little boy?"
"Why, yes, my dear, I have," Anna Mikhailovna answered, very much taken by her visitor's clear blue gaze and fearless manner.
"There, then. You see, Mother's allowed me to visit him. May I see him, please?"
But at this moment Petro himself came running up, and Maxim appeared on the porch.
"It's that same little girl, Mother! The one I told you about," Petro cried, when he had greeted his visitor. "Only—I'm having a lesson just now."
"Oh, I think Uncle Maxim will excuse you, just this once," the mother said. "I'll ask him, shall I?"
But the little woman, evidently quite at home, had already turned to meet Maxim, who was coming slowly across the yard towards them. Holding out her hand to him, she declared, with gracious approval,
"It's good of you not to whip a blind little boy like that. He told me."
"Not really, my dear young lady?" Maxim returned, with comic gallantry. "I'm greatly obliged to my pupil, for winning me the favour of so delightful a creature."
And he burst into laughter, patting the tiny hand he held in his. The little girl stood looking up into his face; and her frank, clear gaze quickly won that woman-hating heart of his.
"Look at that, Anna," he said, turning to his sister, with an odd smile on his lips. "Our Petro's beginning to make friends of his own. And you must agree that ... well, blind as he is, he's managed to make quite a good choice, hasn't he?"
"What are you hinting at, Max?" the young mother demanded sternly, her face aflame.
"Nothing. I was joking," he said quickly, realising that his careless quip had touched an aching spot, had brought into the open a secret worry over coming problems hidden deep in the mother's heart.
Anna Mikhailovna flushed redder still. Stooping, she threw her arms around the little girl, in sudden passionate tenderness. The child received her fierce embrace with that same clear gaze, only the least bit surprised.