They had all gathered in the little drawing-room. Only Pyotr and Evelina were missing. Maxim sat talking with old Stavruchenko, but the young people, lounging by the open windows, were very quiet. A strange, hushed mood reigned in the room—the mood that comes at moments of an emotional crisis that is sensed by all, if not by all entirely understood. The absence of Pyotr and Evelina seemed, somehow, very marked. Maxim kept breaking off his talk to glance swiftly, expectantly at the open doors. Anna Mikhailovna had a sad, almost a conscience-stricken look. She was making an obvious effort to behave as a cordial and attentive hostess. Only Pan Popelsky, who was growing noticeably stouter as the years rolled by, was placid as always, half-dozing in his chair in expectation of his supper.
Footsteps sounded on the veranda, and all eyes turned that way. Evelina appeared in the black opening of the veranda door. Behind her, Pyotr was coming slowly up the steps.
Evelina felt the eyes turned so intently on her. But she showed no embarrassment. Her step was even as always as she came into the room. Only once, as she encountered Maxim's glance, did her lips curl in a faint smile, and her eyes flash a look of ironic challenge.
Anna Mikhailovna had eyes only for her son.
Pyotr, slowly following Evelina, seemed hardly to realise where he was. Coming into the bright light at the doorway, he paused suddenly, his pale face and slender figure outlined against the night. But then he stepped over the threshold and—still with that strange, absent look on his face—walked quickly across the room to the piano.
Music was an accustomed element in the quiet life of the manor; but it had always been a very domestic element, a thing unshared with the outside world. During these days when the house resounded to the talk and songs of their young visitors, though the elder of the two young Stavruchenkos, a student of music, had played at times, Pyotr had never once approached the piano. And this reticence had been one of the things that kept him so much in the background in the lively company—effacing him so thoroughly, amidst the general animation, that his mother's heart had bled to see it. But now, for the first time, Pyotr moved confidently to his accustomed place. He did not seem, actually, to realise what he was doing; nor did he seem to notice the people in the room. True, such a hush had fallen over the company with his and Evelina's appearance that he might almost have thought the room was empty.
He opened the piano and laid his fingers gently on the keys, then played a few swift, light chords—tentative, inquiring. He seemed to be asking some question—asking the piano, as he pressed its keys; or, perhaps, asking his own heart and mood.
The chords died away, and he sat motionless, absorbed in thought—his hands spread, passive, on the keys; and the hush in the drawing-room grew deeper still.
The night looked in at the black rectangles of the open windows. Here and there a leafy tree, caught out of the darkness by the light from the house, seemed to be looking curiously into the room. Impressed by Pyotr's vague prelude, and caught by the spell of a strange inspiration that seemed to radiate from his pale face, the visitors sat in silent expectation.
And still Pyotr's hands lay passive on the keys. He sat as though listening, his unseeing eyes upturned. A tumultuous tide of emotions had risen within him. Life—unknown, unexperienced—had caught him up, as the rising waves catch up a boat that has long been lying peacefully on the dry seaside sand. His face expressed amazement and inquiry—yes, and something else, an unwonted, excited animation, that came and went in swift changes of light and shade. His blind eyes seemed deep and dark.
For a moment he seemed unable to single out, in the tumult of his emotions, that one above all others that he sought so eagerly. But then—though his look of amazement, of expectation, did not change—he started, raised his hands over the keyboard, and, caught up by a new wave of feeling, let himself be carried away in flowing, singing music.
Playing by score is a difficult thing for the blind. The score is raised: separate signs for each note, strung out in rows like the letters in a book. Between notes meant to be played together, exclamation points are set, to indicate their connection. Reading with his fingers, the blind player is compelled to memorise every passage—to memorise it for each hand separately—before he can attempt to play it. This is a laborious and lengthy process. But Pyotr had always loved the elements of which music is made; and when, after memorising a few bars for each hand, he sat down to play them, and the raised hieroglyphs of the book were transformed suddenly into harmonious sound—his pleasure and interest, at such moments, were so lively that the dry work by which they were attained lost much of its tedium, and actually began to fascinate him.
Still, there were too many intermediate processes between the raised characters in the book and their expression in sound. Each character, to become music, had to travel through the fingers to the brain, there to be established in memory, and then to travel back again from the brain to the finger-tips, as they pressed the keys. And Pyotr's musical imagination, highly developed from childhood, would intervene in the process of memorisation; so that the music thus learned, whoever its author, was always perceptibly tinged, in the playing, by the blind player's own personality.
Pyotr's musical feeling was moulded in the shape in which melody had first reached his consciousness, the shape in which, later, it had filled his mother's playing. It was his native folk music that sounded always in his soul; it was this music through which his spirit communed with Nature.
And from the first notes of the Italian piece he now began to play, with throbbing heart and overflowing soul, there was something so unusual about his interpretation that the visitors glanced at one another wonderingly. But as he played on an irresistible charm stole over them all, and only the elder of the two young Stavruchenkos, himself a musician, made any attempt to trace the familiar score, or to analyse its execution.
The music filled the room, resounded through the quiet garden. The young people listened with sparkling eyes, full of curiosity and excited interest. Old Stavruchenko sat quietly at first, his head bowed in thought; but soon he began to show a rising excitement.
"That's what you call playing—eh?" he whispered suddenly, jogging Maxim with his elbow. "What do you say to that?"
As the music gained in power, he was seized by memories—of his youth, most likely, for he threw back his shoulders, his cheeks flushed, and his eyes grew bright. He raised a clenched fist, as though to bring it down on the table with a crash; but restrained himself, and lowered it without a sound.
"Shelve the old man, will they? Let them try!" he whispered to Maxim, with a swift glance at his sons. "You and me, brother, in our day....Yes, and now too....Well, isn't that so?"
And he tugged at his long moustache.
Maxim, in general, was quite indifferent to music. Today, however, he sensed something entirely new in his pupil's playing; and he sat listening intently—shaking his head, from time to time, behind his sheltering cloud of tobacco-smoke, and turning his eyes now on Pyotr, now on Evelina. Again, life was interfering in his system, in a way he had not planned at all. Anna Mikhailovna, too, glanced often at Evelina, trying to determine what it was that sounded in Pyotr's music: grief, or joy.
Evelina sat in a corner where her face was sheltered from the lamplight. Only her eyes, wide open, darker than by day, gleamed in the shadows. She had her own understanding of the music; for she heard in it the ripple of the water in the old mill sluices, and the murmur of the bird cherries in the shadowed garden.