Passing through the yard, one day, Maxim heard strange sounds floating from the drawing-room, where Petro should have been having a music lesson. A strange sort of exercise, this! It consisted of only two notes. First, the very highest, brightest note of the upper register, quivering as it was struck—repeatedly, rapidly, over and over again; then, suddenly—and also over and over—a low, rolling bass note. What could such extraordinary music mean? Maxim turned quickly towards the house, and a moment later, opening the drawing-room door, stopped short in amazement at the scene confronting him.
Petro, in his tenth year now, sat on a low stool at his mother's feet. Beside him, its neck outstretched and its long beak turning restlessly from side to side, stood a young stork Iochim had tamed and given to the boy. Petro always fed his pet from his own hand, and the bird followed him everywhere. Now he was holding it still with one hand, and with the other gently stroking its feathers—the neck, the back, the wings. His face was set in strained attention. And his mother, at the piano—her face aflame with excitement, her eyes dark with grief—was striking one of the keys, rapidly, repeatedly, evoking that continuous, quivering highest note of all. As she played, she looked with painful intentness into the child's face at her knee. And then, when the boy's hand, stroking the stork, reached the point at the end of the wing where the intense white of the feathers ended abruptly in as intense a black, the mother's hand swept down across the keyboard and a low, bass note came rumbling through the room.
They were so absorbed in what they were doing that neither of them noticed Maxim until, recovering from his amazement, he interrupted them with a loud, "Anna! What does all this mean?"
Meeting her brother's searching glance, Anna Mikhailovna hung her head like a little girl whom her teacher has caught at some childish mischief.
"Well, you see," she explained awkwardly, "Petro says he feels some difference in the colouring of the feathers. Only he can't understand just what the difference is. He spoke of it himself, truly he did, and I think he really feels it."
"And if he does, what then?"
"Why, nothing, only ... you see ... I thought perhaps I could help him a little to understand the difference, by using this difference of sounds. Don't be cross with me, Max. I really think it's very similar."
Maxim was so amazed by this new thought that, at first, he could find nothing to say. He made her repeat her experiment, and watched the boy's strained face in silence, shaking his head. -
"Do try to understand me, Anna," he told his sister, when the boy had left the room. "It's not a good thing to raise questions in the child's mind that you can never, never answer to his full satisfaction."
"But he brought it up himself, truly he did," she cried. "That makes no difference. The boy has no choice but to settle down to his blindness. And we must try to make him forget any such thing as light. I do my best to prevent any outer stimulus that might lead him to fruitless questioning. And if we could rid him of all such stimuli, he'd never feel the lack in his sensations—just as we, with all five senses, never long for some unknown sixth."
"Ah, but we do," she answered softly.
"We do," she persisted. "We often long for what's impossible."
Still, she yielded to her brother's counsel.
But this time Maxim was wrong. In his eagerness to block all outer stimuli, he had failed to take into account those impulses which Nature had implanted in the child's own being.
The eyes, someone has said, are the mirror of the soul.
It would be more true, perhaps, to liken them to windows, through which the soul receives its impressions of the outer world in all its vivid, sparkling colour. Who can say what portion of our spiritual make-up depends upon our sight impressions?
A man is only one link in an unending chain of lives that stretches, through him, from the bottomless past to the infinitely distant future. In one such link, a blind little boy, some cruel chance had shut these windows. All his life must pass in darkness. But did that mean that the chords by which the soul responds to sight impressions had snapped within him, never to be mended? No! Through this dark life, too, the soul's receptiveness to light must continue, to be passed on to succeeding generations. The blind boy's soul was a normal human soul, with all the normal human capacities. And since every capacity carries with it the desire for accomplishment, this dark soul held within it an unconquerable longing for light.
Somewhere in the unfathomed depths lay inherited powers, unessayed, still dormant in the misty state of "potentiality", but ready at the first ray of light to rise in swift response. But the windows remained shut. The child's fate was sealed. He would never see that ray! All his life must pass in darkness.
And the darkness was alive with phantoms.
Had the child lived in poverty, had he been surrounded with misery, his thoughts might, perhaps, have been absorbed by these outer sources of suffering. But his family had taken care to isolate him from all that might cause him distress. They had given him unbroken peace and quiet. And now, in this quiet that reigned in his soul, the inner want made itself the more strongly felt. Through the still darkness around him, he began to feel a vague, but unremitting sense of a need that sought fulfilment—a striving to give shape to powers that lay dormant, unapplied, deep in his being.
All this gave rise to strange, undefined expectations and impulses—something in the nature of the will to fly that all of us have experienced in childhood, with the wonderful dreams it is bound up with at that age.
And this, in its turn, gave rise to instinctive mental strivings that found expression in a look of painful inquiry on the blind boy's face. The "potentialities" of sight impression, inherited but not applied, raised strange phantoms in the childish brain—dark, shapeless, undefined, compelling, tormenting effort to attain he knew not what.
It was Nature, rising in blind protest against this individual "exception"—seeking to reassert the universal rule that here was violated.