Off at the end of the manor garden there was an old, abandoned water-mill. Its wheels had long ceased turning; its shafts were overgrown with moss; and the water filtered through its leaky sluices in several tiny streamlets, never still. This was a favourite haunt of the blind youth's. He often sat for hours on the dam, listening to the rippling murmur of the water—and then, at home, drew from the piano those same rippling sounds. But now he had no heart for the murmuring water. Now he strode up and down, up and down the path, his heart overflowing with bitterness, his face twisted with the pain that filled him.
Hearing Evelina's light footsteps, he stopped short. She came up to him, and laid her hand on his shoulder.
"Tell me, Pyotr," she said earnestly. "Tell me—what's the matter? What is it that troubles you so?"
He turned quickly and moved down the path again. Evelina kept close at his side. She understood his silence, his sharp turning away; and, for a moment, she hung her head.
A lusty young voice, softened by the distance, singing of love, and happiness, and the open spaces—it came floating through the evening hush, stilling the lazy whisperings of the garden.
They were happy, those young people, with their talk of such a full and vivid life. She, too, only a few minutes past, had been with them, intoxicated with the dream of that bright life, where there remained no room for him. She had not even noticed when he left—and who could say how long these moments of grief might have seemed to him, in his loneliness?
Of all this Evelina thought, walking down the path at Pyotr's side. Never before had it been so difficult for her to speak to him, to turn his mood. But now too, she could see, her very presence was gradually softening his gloom.
It was not long before his hurried step slowed down, and his face began to clear. With Evelina at his side, the bitter pain in his heart grew less, giving way to another, a softer feeling—a familiar feeling, that he could not have named, but to whose healing influence he yielded willingly.
"What is it?" Evelina asked again.
"Nothing in particular," he answered, with a bitter note in his voice. "It's simply that I feel so utterly unwanted and unneeded in this world."
The song at the house had died away. There was a silence, and then a new song reached them, barely audibly—one of
THE BLIND MUSICIAN
the old Ukrainian dumkas, softly sung, in the manner of the ancient bandurists. At times the voice of the singer would fade entirely away, leaving a vague, unformed dream to reign in the listeners' souls; and then again the melody would reach them faintly, through the rustling of the trees.
Pyotr stopped, involuntarily, to listen.
"You know," he said wistfully, "it sometimes seems to me it's true, what old people like to say—that the world keeps getting worse and worse to live in. Even for the blind, the old times were better. I'd have played the bandura, if I'd lived then, instead of the piano. And I'd have gone wandering about the country, through the towns and villages. The people would have thronged to hear me, and I'd have sung to them of their fathers' great deeds, of heroism and glory. I'd have had my place in life, blind as I am. Whereas now.... Why, even that child of a cadet, with the shrill little voice—even he has his path chalked out. Did you hear him? When he's to marry, and when he's to get his command. The others laughed at him. But for me—for me, even that's far out of reach." •
"You've been listening to that young Stavruchenko," she returned, as lightly as she could, trying to hide her anxiety.
"Yes, I have," Pyotr said slowly. "He has a very pleasant voice. Is he good-looking?"
"He's nice," Evelina began thoughtfully—but broke off, in swift anger at herself, to declare sharply, "No, he isn't, not at all, and I don't like him one bit! He's too sure of himself, and his voice isn't pleasant, either. It's too loud."
Pyotr said nothing, taken aback by this sudden fit of anger.
"Such stupid foolishness!" Evelina hurried on, stamping her foot. "It's Maxim's doing, all of it, I know it is. Oh, how I hate him now, that old Maxim!"
"What are you saying, Evelina?" Pyotr cried. "What do you mean—his doing?"
"It is, it is, and I just hate him!" she repeated stubbornly. "He's planned and calculated till he's strangled any bit of human kindness he ever had in him. Don't you talk to me of them! Who ever gave them the right to interfere in other people's lives?"
Suddenly breaking off, she clenched her slender hands until the knuckles cracked, and began to cry, as children do.
Pyotr took her hands in his, with wondering concern. He could not understand this sudden outburst. Evelina had always been so quiet, so entirely the master of her emotions! He stood listening to her sobs, and to the strange echo that her sobbing aroused in his own heart. Old memories surged up—a memory of himself, out on his hillock, sad as he had been today, and of the little girl, weeping for him as now she wept again.
But all at once she pulled her hands free—and again he stood wondering, for she was laughing.
"Silly goose that I am! What was I crying about?"
She dried her eyes and went on, her voice soft with repentance.
"I mustn't be so unfair. They're really fine people, both of them. And the things he was talking of are very fine. Only, all that—it's not for everyone."
"It's for everyone who can undertake it," Pyotr said.
"Don't be ridiculous!" she returned briskly—though, mingling with her smile, her voice still carried traces of her recent tears. "Why, even if you take Maxim—he fought as long as he could; but now that he can't, he takes life as it comes. Well, and we too..."
"Don't say, we. For you, it's quite another matter." ' "No, it isn't." \ "Why isn't it?"
"Because... Well, then—because you're going to marry me, aren't you? And so our lives will be alike."
"Marry you? Me? You ... you mean, you'd marry me?"
"Why, of course I do," she cried, her tongue tripping over the words in her excited haste. "You silly boy! Hadn't you really ever thought of it? A simple thing like that? Why, who were you thinking of marrying, if not me?"
"Yes, of course," he agreed, with unaccustomed selfishness; but, suddenly realising what he was saying, continued quickly, taking her hand in his, "No, Evelina. You listen to me. You heard their talk, just now. In the cities, girls can study. They can learn. And you, too—great things might open up for you. Whereas I..."
"Well, and what of you?"
"I ... I'm blind," he concluded, quite illogically.
Again the memories of childhood rose in his heart: the river, lapping softly on its banks; his first acquaintance with Evelina, and her bitter tears when he told her of his blindness. And instinctively he broke off, realising that his words must wound her now, too, as they had wounded her then. There was no sound for a moment but the gentle rippling of the water in the sluices. Evelina was very still—so still, she might not have been there at all. In that moment, her face was twisted with silent pain. But she quickly mastered herself, and when she spoke again her voice was light and carefree.
"And what if you are?" she demanded. "After all, if a girl falls in love with a blind boy, why, what can she do but marry that blind boy? That's how it always works out, you know. So that—what can we do about it?"
"If a girl falls in love," he repeated slowly; and his mobile eyebrows drew together in concentrated thought, as the familiar words sank into his consciousness in so new an aspect. "If she falls in love?"—this time on a rising note of excited query.
"Why, of course! You and I—we're both in love. You silly boy! Why, just think a minute: could you live on here alone, if I went away?"
His face paled, and his unseeing eyes opened wide.
It was very quiet. Only the water continued its rippling murmur. Even this would fade at times, almost dying away; but always it would rally, and carry on its tinkling tale. A soft whispering filled the dark foliage of the bird cherries. The singing at the house had stopped—but now a nightingale trilled tentatively, on the bank of the mill pond.
"I'd die," he said dully.
Her lips trembled, as on that day of their first acquaintance.
"And so would 1," she said, with an effort, in a voice that was suddenly faint and childlike. "And so would I—alone, so far away, without you."
He pressed her slender fingers. And, how strange—her gentle answering pressure was so unlike what it had always been before! Now, this slight movement of her fingers found its way deep, deep into his heart. And Evelina herself had become, not only his accustomed childhood friend, but also—at one and the same time—a new, a different person. He, Pyotr, now seemed to himself strong and virile; Evelina—weak, and in tears. In an impulse of the deepest tenderness, he drew her close and began to stroke her silky hair.
And it seemed to him that all the grief in his heart was stilled, that he had no more longings and desires, that there was nothing in life but this one moment.
The nightingale by the pond, satisfied at last with its tentative ventures, burst into full song, filling the quiet garden with passionate music. Evelina started, and shyly put aside Pyotr's caressing hand.
He released her at once, and stood listening as she smoothed back her hair. His breath came full and free. His heart beat loud, but evenly—driving through his body, with the hot rush of blood, a new sense of concentrated energy. When, a moment later, she said simply, "Now we must get back to our guests," he listened wonderingly, hearing not so much the words as the new notes in this dear voice he knew so well.