Evelina had grown up, of course, since her first meeting with Pyotr; but young Stavruchenko's remark was very true. Her slender figure, at first glance, made her seem hardly more than a child. There was something, however, in her unhurried, even movements that gave her at times the dignity of a grown woman. Her face, too, made a similar impression. It is only among Slavs, I believe, that such faces are encountered. Fine, regular features, outlined in smooth, cool curves; blue eyes, calm and steady; pale cheeks, to which the colour rarely rose—not the pallor, this, that is ready always to blaze in the flush of passion, but, rather, the cool white of snow. Her straight, fair hair, lightly shadowing her marble temples, was confined in a heavy braid that seemed to draw her head back when she walked.
Pyotr, too, had grown and greatly matured. Anyone glancing at him just now, where he sat—pale and deeply moved—a little apart from the other young people, must have been strongly impressed by his handsome face, so unlike other faces in its expression, so sharply changing in response to every movement of the soul. His black hair lay in a graceful wave over his prominent forehead, already lightly furrowed. His cheeks now flushed with rapid colour, now, as rapidly, blanched to a dull pallor. A nervous tremor passed, at times, over his lower lip, turned down the least bit at its corners; and his mobile eyebrows were seldom still. But his beautiful eyes stared out in an even, unmoving gaze that gave his face a somewhat unusual tinge of gloom.
"And so," the student began, after some moments of silence, "Panna Evelina feels that these things we've been talking of are beyond the powers of a woman's mind; that woman's lot lies in the narrow sphere of kitchen and nursery."
There was a certain self-satisfaction in the young man's tone (for these ideas were brand new at the time), and a challenging note of irony. Again, for a moment, silence fell. Evelina flushed nervously.
"You're a little hasty in your conclusions," she returned finally. "I understood your talk well enough—which shows that it's quite within the powers of a woman's mind. What I said about destiny referred only to my own, personal life."
She fell silent, and bent over her work with such an air of preoccupation that the young man's courage began to fail him.
"How strangely you talk," he said perplexedly. "A person might think you'd planned your whole life out ahead, to the very grave."
"But what is there strange about that?" Evelina returned quietly. "Why, I'm sure even Ilya Ivanovich"— that was the cadet—"has his life all planned out already; and he's younger than me, isn't he?"
"That's perfectly true," the cadet put in, pleased to be drawn into the talk. "You know, I read a biography of N—, not long ago. He lived by plan, too. Married at twenty, and got his command at thirty-five."
The student laughed mockingly. Again, a slight flush rose to Evelina's cheeks.
"There it is," she said, after a pause, with cold asperity. "We have each our own destiny."
No one tried to debate the point any further. A grave hush fell over the little group of young people—a hush through which it was easy to sense a feeling of puzzled alarm. They all realised that, unwittingly, their talk must have touched some very delicate personal feeling; that Evelina's simple words veiled the quivering of a taut and sensitive chord.
No sound broke the hush but the rustling of the trees. It was growing dark, and the old garden seemed, somehow, out of humour.
All this talk and argument, this surging tide of youthful hopes and interests, opinions and expectations, swept down upon the blind youth like a sudden storm. At first he listened eagerly, his face aglow with wondering admiration. But, before long, he could not help noticing that this vigorous tide made no effort to sweep him along in its advance; that it evinced no interest in him whatever. No questions were ever put him, no opinion asked of him. He was left apart, in a cheerless sort of isolation—the more cheerless, the greater the animation now reigning at the manor.
But he still listened attentively to the talk, so new and strange; and as he listened his eyebrows would draw sharply together, and his pale face assume an expression of straining interest. It was a gloomy interest, however, and the thoughts it aroused were heavy and bitter.
Mournfully, the mother watched her son. Evelina's eyes expressed her sympathy and alarm. Maxim alone seemed not to notice how his pupil was affected by the lively company. With the greatest cordiality, he urged the visitors to come again, and often; and undertook to look them up a wealth of interesting ethnographical material.
They left, promising to return. In parting, the young men pressed Pyotr's hand with friendly warmth. He returned their pressure impulsively, and when they drove off stood for a long time listening to the retreating rumble of wheels—then, quickly, turned away and disappeared into the garden.
With their departure, all grew still again at the manor. But it was a different stillness now, Pyotr felt: a strange, unusual stillness. In the very hush, he seemed to hear the admission that something had happened here, something of vital importance. Along the quiet paths, where no sound greeted him but the rustle of beeches and lilac, he seemed to hear echoes of the recent talk. And, too he sometimes heard, through the open windows, some sort of debate going on in the drawing-room. His mother's voice would float out, full of pain and pleading, and Evelina's, tense with indignation—both directed, evidently, against Maxim; while Maxim seemed to answer their attacks firmly, if heatedly. When Pyotr came in sight, these discussions would break off at once.
It was with deliberate purpose that Maxim had so ruthlessly hacked this first breach in the wall which had so long enclosed his blind pupil's world. Now the first swift, turbulent wave had swept in at the breach; and its impact had jarred the boy's spiritual calm.
He felt cramped, now, within his enchanted circle. He was oppressed by the tranquil quiet of his home, by the lazy rustlings and murmurings of the old manor garden, by the monotony of the slumber in which his youthful spirit had been plunged. The darkness brought him new voices—calling, enticing; it was alive with new concepts, only vaguely defined, that came crowding into his brain and filled it with a restless longing.
It called, it summoned, it awakened needs that had been slumbering within him. And even these first beckonings made their mark. His face grew paler; and a dull, vague ache gnawed at his heart.
The mother and Evelina quickly noticed these signs of his disquiet. We who have sight, seeing on others' faces the reflection of their thoughts and feelings, learn in time to mask our own emotions. But the blind are helpless in this respect. Pyotr's blanched face was as easily read as a diary forgotten, unlocked, in a drawing-room; and it betrayed a harrowing unrest.
They saw, too, that Maxim noticed all this as well as they—more, that it seemed to enter into some plan he was pursuing. They both thought this bitterly cruel. The mother would have shielded her son, if she could, with her own body. A hot-house, Maxim called it? Well, and what of that, so long as, in this hot-house, her child had been happy? Let his life continue always so—quiet, tranquil, unruffled.
Evelina was less outspoken, seeming to reserve much of her thoughts. But her attitude to Maxim had changed. She objected, now, to many of his proposals—at times, to the most trifling of details—with a sharpness he had never met in her before. Looking out searchingly at her from under his drawn brows, he would often encounter a wrathful glitter in her eyes. He would shake his head at such moments, muttering something unintelligible, and surround himself with even thicker clouds of tobacco-smoke than always—a sign of concentrated mental effort. But he maintained his ground unyieldingly; and, from time to time, delivered himself of scathing remarks, addressed to no one in particular, concerning the foolishness of feminine love and the limitations of feminine reasoning—a woman's brain, as all the world knows, being too short-sighted to see beyond the moment's suffering or the moment's joy. It was not tranquillity that he sought for Pyotr, but the utmost attainable fullness of life. Every teacher, it is said, strives to mould his pupil in his own likeness. And Maxim sought for his nephew that which he himself had experienced and so early lost: a life of struggle, of stirring conflict. In what form, he could not yet himself have said; but he made every effort to broaden the blind boy's impressions of the outer world—at the risk, even, of possible shocks and spiritual upheaval. It was something very different from this, he knew, that his sister and Evelina were seeking.
"Blind mother instinct!" he would exclaim at times, stumping up and down the room with an angry tapping of his crutches.
But these moments of anger were rare. Ordinarily he met his sister's arguments with mild persuasion and gentle sympathy, the more so that, when Evelina was not there to back her, she invariably yielded to his reasoning—which did not prevent her, be it added, from raising the question again before much time had passed. When Evelina was there, however, the resistance was far stronger, and at such times the old man sought refuge in silence. It was as though some contest were setting in between these two—a struggle in which each, as yet, was but studying his adversary, keeping his own cards carefully concealed.