And so, try as he might to eliminate all outer stimuli, Maxim would never be able to destroy the pressure from within, the pressure of a need unsatisfied At best, the care he exercised might succeed only in delaying the awakening of this need, in preventing the too early intensification of the blind child's suffering. For the rest, the boy's unhappy fate must take its course, with all the bitter consequences of his blindness.
And it advanced upon him, his fate, a heavy storm cloud. His inborn liveliness subsided more and more, as the years passed by—like a receding tide; and an inner melancholy, vague as yet, but unremitting, sounded more and more strongly in his soul, and began to affect his character. The laughter that had rung out, in his early childhood, at every vivid new impression, now sounded less and less frequently. He was able to perceive but little of life's laughter, merriment, humour; but was wonderfully sensitive to the shadowy, wistful melancholy that sounded in Nature in his southern homeland, and in the songs of its people. His eyes would fill with tears at the song of how "the grave whispered with the wind, out in the open field", and he liked to go out into the fields himself, to listen to this whispering. More and more, he developed the desire to be alone; and when, his lessons over, he wandered away by himself, none of the household, if it could be helped, would break in on his seclusion. He would go off to some ancient burial mound, out in the steppe, or to his hillock by the river-bank, or to that high rock he knew so well, and lie there listening, with not a sound about him but the rustle of leaves and the whispering of the grass, and, perhaps, the faint sighing of the wind over the steppe. These things harmonised in some very special way with the depths of his soul's mood. To the extent that he was capable of apprehending Nature, it was out here that he understood her best—completely, to the very bottom. Here, Nature did not worry him with insoluble problems. Here, there was this wind pouring itself straight into his soul, and the grass, that seemed to whisper soft words of sympathy; and when his young soul, tuned to the gentle harmony around him, relaxed in Nature's caressing warmth, he would feel something rising in his breast, something that flooded his whole being. He would bury his face, at such moments, in the cool, damp grass, and let the soft tears flow; soft tears, not bitter. Or, sometimes, he would take up his pipe, and forget all the world in wistful melodies congenial to his mood and to the quiet harmony of the steppe.
Any human sound that might break suddenly in upon this mood affected him, always, as a jarring dissonance. And that was natural enough. It is only with the closest, the most kindred of hearts that there can be communion at such moments; and the boy had only one such friend of his own age—the fair-haired little girl from the possessor's estate.
Their friendship grew steadily stronger. It was a completely reciprocal relationship. Evelina brought her friend her tranquillity, her quiet joy in life. She helped him, in his blindness, to perceive new shadings in the life around them. And he—he brought her his sorrow. It was as though her first knowledge of his grief had dealt the little woman's tender heart a deep and cruel wound, and—remove the dagger from the wound that it had dealt, and she would bleed to death. After the poignant sympathy that had hurt her so on that day of their first talk together, on the hillock by the riverside, his company grew daily more essential to her. When they were apart, the wound would begin to bleed, and the pain would fill her heart again; and she would hasten to her friend, to ease her own suffering in unceasing care for him.
On a mild autumn evening both families had gathered on the grassy stretch before the house, talking of one thing and another, and looking up often into the deep blue of the sky, with its glittering sprinkling of stars. The blind boy sat by his mother, as always, with Evelina close by his side.
For a moment, the talk died away. The evening was very quiet. Only the leaves, now and again, would flutter suddenly, and whisper something, and fall still.
And in this moment of silence a brilliant star dropped from somewhere in the dark-blue heights and swept in a flashing curve across the sky, leaving behind it a phosphorescent trace that lingered, only gradually fading, long after the star had disappeared. The little company watched it silently. Anna Mikhailovna, whose hand lay on Petro's arm, felt him suddenly start, and shiver.
"What ... was that?" he asked, turning to her excitedly.
"A star falling, son."
"A star? Of course. I knew it must be a star."
"How could you know that, Petro?"
A sad note of doubt sounded in the mother's voice.
"Ah, but it's true, what he says," put in Evelina. "He knows lots of things ... well, somehow."
"This sensitivity to the outer world, increasing with every passing day, indicated a rapid approach to the critical age that lies between adolescence and youth. As yet, however, Petro's development was quiet enough. It might have seemed, even, that he had resigned himself to his fate; and the strangely even melancholy, never lifting, yet never greatly deepening, that had become habitual to him, now seemed somewhat less. But this was only a temporary lull: one of those breathing spaces that Nature gives us, as though of deliberate purpose—that the young life may muster up its strength, and gird itself to meet new storm and stress. During such lulls new problems accumulate, unnoticed, and gradually mature. One touch—and the soul's tranquillity is thrown into confusion, to its very depths, like the sea before the onslaught of a sudden storm.
A few more years passed by.
Nothing had changed at the quiet manor. The beeches still rustled in the garden; only their foliage seemed rather thicker now, and darker. The white house wore the same pleasant, welcoming look as always; only its walls had settled a little, and seemed the least bit out of line. The thatched eaves of the stable frowned down as they always had, and Iochim, still confirmed in his bachelor life, tended the horses as before. The pipe, too, still sounded from the stable doors in the evening hours; only now Iochim preferred to listen, while the blind boy played—be it pipe or piano.
There was more grey than before in Maxim's hair.
No more children had been born to the Popelskys, and the blind firstling remained, as ever, the hub around which all the life of the manor centred. For him, the manor had shut itself up in its own narrow circle, content to live a quiet, secluded life, linked only with the no less quiet life of the possessor's little home. Thus, the boy—now a youth—had grown up much like a hot-house plant, sheltered against any harsh influence that might emanate from distant outer spheres.
He lived, as always, at the centre of a vast world of darkness: darkness above him, darkness around him—everywhere darkness, without end or limit; and, through the darkness, his sensitive nature strained to meet each new impression—like a taut string strains, ready to respond to sound in eager sound. And this taut expectancy noticeably affected his mood. Another moment—just another moment, it kept seeming, and the darkness would reach out its unseen hands and touch some chord within him, a chord still sunk in long and wearisome sleep and waiting, longing to be awakened.
But the familiar darkness of the manor, so kindly and so uneventful, brought to his waiting senses only the caressing murmur of the trees in the old garden, soothing, lulling his mind. Of the distant world, he knew only through songs, and books, and history. It was only by hearsay, here amidst the pensive murmuring of the garden and the quiet peace of the manor, that he learned anything of the storms and passions of that far-off life—picturing what he heard through a mist of enchantment, as he might a song, an epic, a tale of wonder.
All went so well, it might have seemed. The mother, watching, saw that her son's spirit, sheltered as by a high wall, lay plunged in an enchanted semi-slumber—artificial, it might be, but at any rate tranquil. And she did not want this tranquillity to be shattered. She was afraid of anything that might shatter it.
Evelina, too, had grown up, by imperceptible degrees. Her clear eyes, looking out over this enchanted hush, at times held something of perplexity, of inquiry about what life might hold in store; but never did they reveal the slightest hint of impatience.
Pan Popelsky, in these years, had made his estate into a model property; but the question of his blind son's future was not, of course, any affair of this kindly soul's. All that got taken care of, somehow, with no effort on his part.
Only Maxim, constituted as he was, found this hush a difficult thing to bear, even as the temporary state he knew it to be—a compelled phase in his plans for his pupil. The youthful spirit, he reasoned, must be given time to settle itself, to accumulate strength, that it might be able to withstand the harsh contact of life.
But without the magic circle, all this time, life was boiling, surging, seething. And the time came when the blind boy's old preceptor felt that he might, at last, break open this circle, throw wide the hot-house door, and let in a stream of the fresh outer air.