The family to which the blind child had been born was not a large one. There were the mother and father; and there was "Uncle Maxim", as he was called by everyone in the house and many outside it. The father was a country landowner, very much like a thousand other country landowners in the South-West Territory. He was good-natured—one might call him even kind; treated his labourers well; and was tremendously fond of mills, one or another of which he was perpetually constructing or reconstructing. This occupation took up so much of his time that his voice was seldom heard in the house except at those hours of the day that were set aside for breakfast, dinner, and the like domestic occasions. Coming in, he would invariably ask, "And how are you today, my love?"—after which he would sit down to his meal and hardly speak till it was over, except, perhaps, now and again, for some announcement concerning the virtues of oak shafts and cog-wheels. A simple, peaceful existence, and not one, of course, to influence to any great degree the formation of his son's character and mentality. But Uncle Maxim—that was a different matter. Ten years or so before the events just described, Uncle Maxim had been known as the most dangerous wrangler not only in the vicinity of his own estate, but even at the Kiev "Contracts".
[ "Contracts"—the local term for the once wide-famed Kiev Fair.] It had puzzled everyone to understand how Pani Popelskaya, nee Yatsenko—such a respectable family, in every way—could have come by so dreadful a brother. One had never known what tone to take with him, or how to please him. To the gentry's civilities, he had returned disdainful insolence; yet from peasants he had endured rudeness and liberties that would have provoked the mildest of the gentry to use his fists. Finally, however, to the infinite relief of all sober-minded folk, he had got terribly angry with the Austrians over something or other, and left for Italy; and there he had joined up with just such another brawler and heretic as himself—one Garibaldi, who, as the gentry whispered in pious horror, had sworn brotherhood with the devil, and cared not a snap for the very Pope. Of course, Maxim had doomed that wayward, schismatic soul of his for all eternity—but, on the other hand, the "Contracts" had become appreciably more peaceful, and many ladies round about had been relieved, at last, of the constant fear for their sons' safety.
The Austrians, evidently, had got angry with Uncle Maxim, too. The battle accounts in the Courier, traditional newspaper of the Polish landowners in these parts, had mentioned him now and again as one of the most reckless of Garibaldi's followers; and one day this same Courier had informed its readers that Maxim had gone down, with his horse, in the field of battle—whereupon the infuriated Austrians, long eager for a chance at this pestiferous Volhynian (in his fellow-Volhynians' imaginations, more or less the only prop that kept Garibaldi from collapse), had slashed him into mincemeat.
"A bad end, Maxim's," the gentlefolk had thought to themselves, ascribing his fall to St. Peter's special intercession in behalf of his successor—Christ's vicar on earth. Maxim had been considered dead.
As it turned out, however, the Austrian sabres had failed to drive Maxim's indomitable soul from his body, badly though they had marred his limbs. Garibaldi's fire-eaters had borne their worthy comrade out of the fray and put him into hospital; and, some years later, he had suddenly arrived at his sister's home and there settled down for good.
Duels, now, were not for him. His right leg was gone, so that he could not walk without a crutch; and his left arm was too maimed to do anything more than manage a stick. He was graver, too, and quieter—only, at times, his sharp tongue would lash out, unerring as once his sword had been. He no longer visited the "Contracts", and rarely appeared in society. The greater part of his time was spent in his library, in the reading of books that no one had ever heard of or knew anything about, except for a general suspicion that they must be altogether godless. He did some writing, too; but as nothing from his pen ever appeared in the Courier, people attributed no great importance to his literary activities.
At the time when the new young life came into being in the little country home, the silver was beginning to show on Uncle Maxim's close-cropped hair and his shoulders had hunched up with the constant pressure of the crutches until his body seemed almost square. People who did not know him well were often afraid of him—awed by his queer figure and gloomy frown, by the loud tapping of his crutches, and the dense clouds of tobacco-smoke that issued from the pipe he never tired of smoking. And only his closest friends knew the kindly warmth of the heart that beat in the invalid's mutilated body; only they guessed at the tireless mental labour that went on in the big, square-hewn head, under the thick bristle of close-cropped hair.
But not even his closest friends could know what problem it was that occupied his mind at this period in his life. They knew only that Uncle Maxim would often sit for hours on end, enveloped in a blue haze of smoke, his eyes clouded and his shaggy eyebrows glumly drawn. What the crippled fighter was thinking was that life is struggle, with no room for invalids. He was out of the ranks for good—a burden for the baggage train, and nothing more. He was a knight whom life had struck from the saddle and thrown to earth. Was it not a cowardly thing to lie there, grovelling in the dust, like a trampled worm? Was it not cowardly to clutch at the victor's stirrup, begging to be left the miserable scraps of existence still remaining?
But while Uncle Maxim considered this searing thought, weighing and balancing the arguments for and against with cold, steady courage, a new being appeared in the household— an invalid from its very coming into the world. At first he hardly noticed the blind child. But it was not long before he began to ponder, with philosophic interest, over the strange resemblance between the child's fate and his own.
"Yes," he said thoughtfully, one day, with a sidewise glance at the infant, "there's another invalid—this youngster. If you could put the two of us together, you'd get one proper man out of us, maybe."
And from that time on his eyes turned to the child more and more often.