When, two weeks later, the visitors came again, Evelina's greeting was very cool. But their youthful animation held a charm she could not easily withstand. Day after day, the young people wandered about the village, or went shooting in the woods, or recorded the songs of the reapers, out in the fields. In the evenings they would gather in the garden, on the long seat running around the house.
And on one such evening, before Evelina realised what was happening, the talk turned again to painful topics. How it had come about, who had begun it, neither she nor any of the others could have said—just as they could not have said when it was that the sunset glow had died, and twilight gathered over the manor garden; or at what moment the nightingale had begun its song in the shadowed bushes.
The student threw into his words all the impassioned fervour of youth, advancing eagerly, without fear or calculation, to meet the uncharted future; and there was a very compelling charm, the all-but-unconquerable force of settled conviction, in this faith with which he spoke of the future, of the wonders that it must bring.
The blood rushed to Evelina's cheeks. Today, she realised, this challenge was addressed—perhaps not altogether deliberately—to her, and her alone.
She bent low over her embroidery. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks aflame. Her heart beat fast. But then the bright glow faded from her eyes, and the flush from her cheeks—though her heart beat faster still. Her lips were suddenly compressed, and a look of fright came into her blanched face.
Fright, because she had seemed to see a dark wall part before her eyes; and through the breach had gleamed bright, distant vistas of a different world—a broad world of seething life, activity.
Yes, it had long been calling her. She had not realised that before. Yet often and often had she sat alone for hours, on some secluded bench in the shady old garden, dreaming strange dreams—bright visions of far-off places; and in her visions there had been no room for blind Petro.
Now, this world was suddenly very near—not merely calling, but seeming to assert some sort of claim upon her.
She threw a swift glance at Pyotr; and her heart stabbed her. He sat very still, deep in thought, with a heaviness in his attitude that she was not soon to forget. He understood—yes, everything! And as this thought flashed through her mind, Evelina felt suddenly very cold. The blood rushed to her heart, leaving her face so white that she herself could feel its pallor. For just one instant she saw herself removed to that bright, distant world, while he sat here alone, his head bowed low. But no, not here. Out on the hillock by the river-bank—the blind little boy she had cried over, that evening long ago.
And she was frightened, frightened lest someone try to draw the dagger from her old wound.
Now she recalled Maxim's eyes, so often turned to her of late. So that was the meaning of those long, silent looks! Better than she herself, he had guessed her mood, had realised that her heart lay open still for struggle and for choice, that she was not yet confident.... But he was wrong! Yes, she knew what her first step must be; and, that step taken, she would see what she might yet wring out of life.
She drew a deep, gasping breath, as after heavy physical exertion, and looked around her. She did not know how long they had been sitting thus, in silence—what more the student had said, if anything, or when he had broken off. She glanced at the place where Pyotr had been sitting.
He was not there.
"You must excuse me, gentlemen," she said, quietly folding up her work. "I shall have to leave you, for a while, to your own resources."
And she walked slowly down the shadowed garden path.
It was not only to Evelina that these evening hours were so heavy with anxiety. Coming up to a bend in the path, she heard voices a little way ahead, where a bench stood under the trees. Maxim and Anna Mikhailovna sat there, talking, and both seemed deeply moved.
"That's so. It was the girl I was thinking of, no less than the boy," Maxim said gruffly. "Just think of it yourself, a moment. Why, she's only a child. She knows nothing at all of life. Would you take advantage of her innocence? You couldn't do that, surely!"
The mother's voice, as she answered, was very near to tears.
"Well, but Max, what ... what if she....What will become of my poor boy?"
"Come what may," the old soldier returned firmly, though his voice was sad. "We'll do our best, if such a time should come. But in any case, he must never be weighed down by the thought of a life spoiled on account of him. Yes, and you and I, Anna—have we no conscience? You must think of that, too."
His voice had softened. Lifting his sister's hand, he kissed it tenderly. Anna Mikhailovna bowed her head.
"My poor, poor boy! It would have been better, then, if he'd never met her," she moaned, so softly that Evelina rather guessed her words than heard them.
The girl paused, flushing painfully. If she came past them now, they could not but realise that she had overheard their secret thoughts.
But then, proudly, she raised her head. She had not meant to eavesdrop, after all. And in any case, she was not to be halted in her chosen course by any feeling of false shame. And he took too much upon himself, besides—Uncle Maxim. Her life was her own, and she would do with it whatever she found fit.
And, her head held high, she walked on slowly down the path, past the bench where they were sitting. Maxim hurriedly pulled his crutch out of her way; and Anna Mikhailovna looked up at her with miserable eyes, full of love, almost adoration, and at the same time of fear—seeming to feel, in her mother's heart, that this fair, proud girl, walking past them with a look of such wrathful challenge, was the carrier of joy, or of grief, for her son's whole future.