The melody had long since changed. Dropping the Italian piece he had been playing, Pyotr had given rein to his own fantasies—to all that had crowded his thoughts in those moments of silence when he sat, absorbed in memories, his hands lying passive on the piano keys. The voices of Nature filled his playing—the breath of the wind and the rustle of the forest, the plash of the river, and the vague murmurings that quiver and die in the distance; and, behind it all, that deep, heart-swelling emotion, so elusive of definition, that Nature's discourse arouses in the soul. Yearning, shall we call it? But why, then, should it be so pleasant? Happiness, perhaps? Then why should it be so deeply, so infinitely sad?
At times the music grew stronger, louder; and, at these moments, a strange severity would come over the blind youth's features—as though he himself were amazed by the new power of his music, and looked forward impatiently to what more might follow. His listeners would wait in breathless expectation. A few more chords, it would seem, and all must merge into a beautiful and mighty harmony. But, hardly it had risen, the melody would sink again, in a strange, plaintive murmur—as a wave breaks in foam and spray; and for long moments afterwards the music would be threaded with bitter notes of query, of perplexity.
Then, perhaps, for a moment, the flying hands would be still, and a hush would fall once more over the room, broken only by the whisper of the trees out in the garden. The magic that had seized upon the little company, carrying them far, far away from the quiet manor, would be dispelled. The walls of the drawing-room would close in upon them, and the dark night peep in at the open windows—until again the musician raised his hands over the keys and began to play.
And again the music would grow and strengthen, again it would seek and inquire, rising to ever loftier heights. Through an ever-changing clamour of chords, folk melodies would come pressing through—wistful tales of love, or memories of past days of suffering and glory, or the joyous revelry and hopes of youth—the blind player's attempt to find expression in familiar musical forms.
But the songs, too, would sink away, and again the plaintive notes of query, of a problem still unsolved, would quiver in the hush of the little drawing-room.
A few last notes, imbued with undefined complaint. And as they died away Anna Mikhailovna, watching her son, saw in his face an expression that she well remembered. A sunny spring day rose in her memory; and again she saw tiny Petro lying in the grass by the river-bank, overwhelmed by the too vivid impressions of Nature's awakening.
But none of the others noticed this look of strain. The room rang with talk. Old Stavruchenko was shouting something at Maxim, and the young people, excited and moved, were pressing Pyotr's hands, predicting success and fame for him as a musician.
"No question about it," the elder of the brothers declared. "It's amazing, how you've grasped the very essence of our folk music, how completely you've mastered it. Only, what was that you played at the beginning?"
Pyotr named the piece, an Italian composition.
"So I thought," young Stavruchenko exclaimed. "I have some knowledge of it, but—your manner of playing is so strikingly individual! There are many who play better; but no one, surely, has ever played it as you did. It was— well, like a translation from the language of Italian music into that of Ukrainian. You need study, training, and then...."
Pyotr sat listening attentively. Never before had he been the focus of such eager talk; and it was giving rise to a sensation altogether new to him: a proud consciousness of his own power. Could it really be that this music of his—and it had cost him more pain, today, and left him more unsatisfied, than it ever had before—that this music of his could affect others so tremendously? Well, then—he too, it seemed, could do something in life!
And then, when the talk was at its loudest, he felt a sudden hot pressure on his fingers, which still lay on the keys. It was Evelina.
"Do you hear? Do you understand?" she whispered joyfully. "There's your work, then, waiting for you. If only you could see, if only you could know how you carried us all away!"
Pyotr started, and threw back his shoulders proudly.
Only the mother noticed Evelina's hurried whisper, and its effect on Pyotr. And, as she watched, she blushed—as though it were she who had just received the first caress of youthful love.
Pyotr did not move. He was struggling to master the new happiness that flooded his heart. And at the same time, it may be, he sensed the first shadow of the storm-cloud that was already rising, heavy, shapeless, somewhere in the utmost depths of his being.
Pyotr woke early, next morning. Quiet filled his room. The house, too, was still. The stir that comes with day had not yet begun. From the garden, through the open window, the fresh breath of morning came pouring into him. Blind though he was, Pyotr had an excellent feeling for the state of Nature around him. He knew, now, that it was very early. He knew, too, that his window was open—knew it by the rustling of the trees, so close and clear, with nothing to bar it from the room. Today, this feeling was more vivid than ever. He knew, though it did not reach him, that the sun was peeping into the room; knew that, should he stretch a hand out through the window, the dew would come sprinkling from the bushes just outside. And there was another feeling too, today—a feeling unfamiliar, never before experienced, but filling his whole being to overflowing.
He lay still awhile, listening to the twitter of some tiny bird out in the garden, and wondering at this strange new feeling in his heart.
What was it? What had happened?
And suddenly, as he questioned himself, came the memory of her words last night, in the dusk, by the old mill.
"Hadn't you really ever thought of it?" she had said, and—"You silly boy!"
No, he had never thought of it. Her presence had always been a joy to him; but, until that evening, it had been a joy not consciously recognised—as we are not conscious of the air we breathe. Those simple words had stirred his spirit like a stone cast into still waters: one touch, and the smooth, shining surface, reflecting the sunlight and the sky's distant blue, is gone—the water stirred to its very bottom.
Waking now, with his spirit thus renewed, he saw his old playmate in an altogether new light. All that had taken place the evening before came back, in its slightest detail; and, as her voice sounded in his memory, he was amazed at its new tembre. "If a girl falls in love..." and—"You silly boy!"
He sprang out of bed, dressed hurriedly, and ran off down the dew-wet garden paths to the old mill. The water rippled in the sluices, and the bird cherries whispered around him, just as the night before; only then it had been dark, and now it was morning, bright and sunny. Never before had he "felt" the light so strongly—as though the damp fragrance, the freshness of the morning, carried with them to his tingling nerve centres some inkling of the joyous cheer of daylight.