Vladimir korolenko the blind musician



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II




Life at the manor became brighter, somehow, and happier. Anna Mikhailovna seemed young again; and Maxim could be heard to joke and laugh, though a moody rumbling still issued at times—like the echo of some distant storm—from his shelter of tobacco-smoke. Some people, he grumbled, seemed to think of life as something in the order of those stupid novels that end with wedding bells; but there were plenty of things in this world of ours that it wouldn't harm such people to give a little thought to. And Pan Popelsky, rotund and handsome in healthy middle-age, his cheeks still ruddy, his hair gradually and evenly silvering—Pan Popelsky, evidently thinking that Maxim's grumbling was addressed to him, would invariably express his agreement and hurry off to attend to his affairs, which were always, it must be said, in perfect order. But the young people would only smile, absorbed in the plans that they were laying. Pyotr was to study music seriously, now.

When the crops were in, and autumn, decked in golden threads of gossamer, hung in languorous contentment over the fields, the whole family, with Evelina, set out on a visit to Stavrukovo, as the Stavruchenkos' estate was called. It was a journey of only some seventy versts; but this short distance brought a great change in the surrounding countryside. The last of the Carpathian foot-hills, still visible in Volhynia and along the Bug, were lost to view, and the landscape settled into rolling Ukrainian steppeland. The villages here were green with orchards and gardens. Scattered gullies cut across the steppe; and here and there along the horizon stood tall grave mounds, long since ploughed around to the very base and now surrounded by yellow fields of stubble.

It was seldom that the family went so far from home. Away from the familiar fields and village, where he knew every inch of ground, Pyotr lost his confident ease of movement; he felt his blindness more strongly, and grew nervous and irritable. Yet he had readily accepted the Stavruchenkos' invitation. Since that memorable evening when he had first realised both his love and the power of his awakening talent, he seemed to shrink less from the outer world—from the dark, unknown vistas that he sensed beyond the bounds of his accustomed life. It had begun to attract him, this world, growing more upon him.

The days at Stavrukovo passed very pleasantly. Pyotr was far less constrained, now, in the youthful company. He would listen with eager interest to young Stavruchenko's masterful playing, and his stories of the Conservatory and of concerts hoard at the capital; and he would flush with pleasure at the musician's enthusiastic praises when the conversation turned to Pyotr's own talent, so vividly expressed, if as yet unpolished. He no longer tried to efface himself, but joined in the general talk as freely as the others, though perhaps not so loquaciously. Evelina, too, had thrown aside the cold restraint—the vigilance, almost—that had hung over her so recently, and delighted them all by her carefree gaiety, her sudden fits of irrepressible merriment.

There was an old monastery, some ten versts from Stavrukovo, that was widely known hereabout for the part it had played, in its time, in local history. Again and again, Tatar hordes, like swarming locusts, had besieged its walls, sending their arrows in myriads against its defenders; or Polish troops had stormed it desperately; or, when it was held by the Poles, the Cossacks had rushed into battle to regain their fortress.

Now the ancient towers lay in ruin. The crumbling walls, patched here and there with stretches of peaceful paling, protected the monastery's vegetable gardens from no more dangerous foe than the enterprising cattle of the local peasantry; and the broad moats were overgrown with millet.

One clear, mild autumn day the Stavruchenkos and their guests set out to visit this monastery. Maxim, with his sister and Evelina, went in the carriage—a broad, old-fashioned vehicle, swaying on its high springs like a wind-tossed boat. The young men rode.

Pyotr rode confidently along beside the others, guided always by the hoofbeats of his companions' mounts and by the sound of the carriage wheels on the road ahead. A stranger, seeing his easy, fearless manner, could hardly have guessed that this young horseman did not see the road—that he had simply learned by long practice to trust his horse's instinct. Anna Mikhailovna, at first, kept looking anxiously back at her son, uneasy because both horse and road were unfamiliar to him. Maxim, too, watched him furtively, with a mentor's pride in his pupil and a purely male superiority to women's silly fears.

"You know," the student exclaimed suddenly, riding up to the carriage, "I've just had an idea. There's a grave here that you really ought to see. We came on the story not long ago, going through some old papers at the monastery, and it's tremendously interesting. We can go right now, if you like. It's not much out of our way—just at the end of the village."

"What makes you think of graves?" Evelina demanded, laughing. "Are we such sad company as all that?"

"I'll answer that question later," he returned, and called to the coachman to turn off towards Kolodnya and stop by the stile to Ostap's garden.

Then, turning his horse, he cantered back to join the other riders.

The carriage turned down a narrow little road, where its wheels sank deep into a thick layer of dust. The young men shot past, and dismounted by a wattle fence at the side of the road. When they had tied their horses here, the young Stavruchenkos walked back to help the ladies down from the carriage, when it should come up; and Pyotr stood waiting, leaning against the pommel of his saddle, his head inclined—listening intently, trying to orientate himself in this unfamiliar place.

To him, this bright autumn day was darkest night, enlivened only by the day-time sounds around him. He could hear the approaching carriage, and the talk and laughter of the two young men. The horses at his side, reaching over the fence to the tall growth of weeds that bordered the vegetable garden inside, pulled at their bridles and made them tinkle. A song floated, wistful, lazy, on the light breeze. It came from somewhere quite near—among the garden beds, perhaps. There was a murmur of leaves, in some near-by orchard. A stork clattered its bill; there was a loud beating of wings, and a cock crowed, as though suddenly recalling some urgent matter; a well-sweep creaked. The sounds of workaday village life. And, indeed, the village was very near. They had stopped by a garden at its very edge.

Of more distant sounds, the clearest was the measured calling of a monastery bell, very thin and high. By the way the bell sounded, or perhaps by the feel of the breeze, or, it might be, by some other sign that he himself could not have named, Pyotr felt that there must be a sudden break or fall in the land somewhere beyond the monastery—the bluff bank of a stream, perhaps; and beyond it a long stretch of flatland, humming with the sounds of peaceful life. Faintly, fragmentarily, these sounds too reached his ears, giving him an aural sensation of distance, veiled and quivering—as to us, who can see, distant outlines seem to quiver in the dim light of evening.

The breeze played with his hair, under the brim of his hat, and brushed past his ear with a soft murmuring much like the singing of an Aeolian harp. Vague memories stirred in his mind. Happenings of his distant childhood, caught up out of forgetfulness, came to life again in the form of wind, and touch, and sound. This breeze that played around him, mingling with the distant bell and with the wistful song here in the garden, seemed to be telling him some old, sad tale of the past history of these places, or, perhaps, of his own past, or of his future—so dark, so undefined.

But now the carriage had come up, and the whole company trooped over the stile into the garden. In a corner of the garden, among a rank growth of weeds and grasses, lay a broad stone slab, almost level with the earth around it. Green leaves of thistle, around flame-pink flower heads, broad-leafed burdock, and tall, thin-stalked cockle swayed above the shorter grasses, rustling gently in the breeze, and Pyotr could hear them whispering over the neglected grave.

"It was only recently we discovered this," young Stavruchenko said. "Yet, do you know who lies under this stone? He was famous, in his day—old Ignat Kary."

"So this is where you lie, old fighter," Maxim said slowly. "How did he come to be here at Kolodnya?"



"It was back in 17—. The monastery was held by Polish troops, and the Cossacks had laid siege to it, together with some Tatar band. And—well, you know, the Tatars were always a dangerous sort of ally. The garrison must have found some way of buying over their mirza. And one night, when the Poles organised a sally, the Tatars joined them against the Cossacks. There was a fearful battle in the dark. The Tatars were beaten, I believe, and the monastery taken; but the Cossacks lost their leader in the fighting."

The young man paused a moment.



"There was another name in the story, too," he continued slowly, "though we haven't been able to find a second grave. The records at the monastery speak of a blind young bandurist buried at Kary's side. He had been with Kary through many campaigns."

"Blind?" Anna Mikhailovna cried tremulously. "And campaigning with Kary?"

She had a vision of her own blind boy, in that fearful battle in the darkness.

"Yes, he was blind. And, evidently, famed for his singing throughout the Zaporozhye country. At any rate, that's how the record speaks of him, in that peculiar mixture of Polish and Ukrainian and Church Slavonic in which the story is set down. I can quote it for you, if you like. I remember this part of it almost word for word: 'And with him Yurko, gloried Cossack singer, who had never left his side, and was by him much loved. And Yurko too, when Kary lay dead, the heathen horde perfidiously cut down. For in their heathen faith know they no veneration for the crippled, nor for the glorious talent of song making and of the plucking of the strings, by which even the wolves of the steppe might be softened, yet not these heathen, who spared it not in their attack by night. And they are laid side by side, the singer and the warrior, and may their noble end be gloried in eternity, Amen.'"

'The stone is wide," one of the company remarked. "Perhaps they lie together under it."

'That may be so. But the inscriptions are all worn away. The mace and horsetail still show, here at the top, but all the rest is gone. Nothing but lichen."

"Ah, but wait one minute," cried Pyotr, who had been listening to this tale with breathless interest.

He knelt beside the stone and pressed his slender fingers down on the green growth of lichen that covered it. Through the lichen, he could feel the firm texture of the stone, and the faint outlines of letters cut in its surface.

He sat thus a moment, his face uplifted, his eyebrows drawn. Then he read aloud.

'"Ignaty, known as Kary ... by the will of our Lord ... shot down from a Tatar bow....'"

"Yes, that much we made out," the student said.

Pyotr's fingers, tensely arched, crept further and further down the stone slab.

"'When Kary lay dead...'"

"'The heathen horde...'" the student put in eagerly. "That's how Yurko's death is described in the record. So that it's true—he lies here too, under this same stone."

"Yes—'the heathen horde'," Pyotr confirmed. "And that's all I can make out. No, wait a bit! Here's some more: 'Cut down by Tatar sabres....' And something else—but no, it's indecipherable. That's all."

All further memory of the young bandurist had been wiped out by erosion, in the century and a half that the stone had been lying over the grave.

For a moment, a deep silence hung over the garden. Only the foliage rustled in the breeze. Then the hush was broken by a long-drawn, reverential sigh. That was Ostap, the owner of the garden, and thereby master of the one-time ataman's last earthly abode. Coming up to welcome the gentlefolk, he had stopped in speechless amazement at the sight of the young man with upturned, sightless eyes, bending over the grave to read by touch words that years, and rain, and storm had combined to hide away from human sight.

"It's the grace of God," he said, his eyes fixed on Pyotr in a look of the deepest awe. "It's the grace of God, that gives the blind to know what we, with eyes, can never see."

"Do you understand now, Panna Evelina, why I suddenly remembered Yurko?" the student asked, when the carriage had set off again along the dusty road on its slow progress towards the monastery. "We kept wondering, my brother and I, how a blind singer could have ridden with Kary and his flying bands. Of course, Kary may not have been the chief ataman at that time. He may have been simply a troop leader. But we know that he was always in command of mounted Cossacks, not of foot troops. And the bandurists—they were usually old men, wandering from village to village and singing for alms. It was only when I saw your Pyotr riding, today, that I suddenly pictured that blind lad in the saddle, with his bandura, slung on his back instead of a gun."

The young man paused a moment, then continued, almost enviously,

"And he fought in battles, too, it may well be. And in any case, he shared in all the marches and the dangers. Yes, what times there were, once, in this Ukraine of ours!"

"What dreadful times!" Anna Mikhailovna put in, sighing. "What wonderful times!" the young man returned. "Nothing like that ever happens now," Pyotr put in gruffly. He had just ridden up to join young Stavruchenko beside the carriage. For a moment he listened, his eyebrows raised, to catch the gait of the other horses. His face, rather paler than usual, betrayed a state of deep emotion.

"All that has disappeared, nowadays," he repeated.

"What was due to disappear, has disappeared," Maxim put in, with a hint of coldness in his tone. "Those people lived the life of their own time. It's for you to find the life that suits your time."

"It's all very well for you," the student said. "You've had something out of life."

"Yes, and life's had something out of me, too," the old Garibaldian returned, with a grim smile, glancing at his crutches.

There was a silence.

"I had my dreams of the old Cossack days too, when I was young," Maxim went on. "The wild poetry of it, and the freedom. I actually went off to Turkey, to join Sadik." [ Sadik-pasha—one Chaikovsky, a Ukrainian dreamer, who thought to make the Cossacks a political force in Turkey.]

"Well, and what came of that?" the young people demanded eagerly.

"I was cured of my dreams fast enough, when I saw those 'free Cossacks' of yours in the service of Turkish despotism. Pure masquerade, historical quackery! I realised then that history has swept all those old trappings into the waste heap; that it's the aim that matters, not the form, however handsome it may seem on the surface. And that was when I went to Italy. There, people were fighting for an aim I was willing to give my life for, even if I didn't know their language."

Maxim was serious now, and spoke with an earnestness that gave his words added weight. He had seldom taken any part in the loud debates between old Stavruchenko and his sons, except to chuckle quietly at their fervour, or to smile good-naturedly when the young people appealed to him as to an ally. But today he had been stirred by the old story that had risen so vividly before them as they bent over the moss-grown stone; and, too, he had the feeling that in some strange way this episode of the distant past had a real significance in the present—for Pyotr, and, through Pyotr, for them all.

This time the young people made no attempt to argue—subdued, perhaps, by the emotion they had experienced in Ostap's garden a few minutes past, beside the gravestone that spoke so eloquently of the death of those past times; or, perhaps, impressed by the old veteran's earnest tone.

"What remains for us, then?" the student asked, breaking the silence that had fallen after Maxim's words.

"Struggle; the same eternal struggle," Maxim answered.

"In what field? In what forms?"

"That's for you to seek."

Now that he had dropped his usual half-mocking tone, Maxim seemed inclined to discuss things seriously. But no time remained, just now, for serious talk. The carriage was approaching the monastery gates. The student reached out a hand to check Pyotr's horse. Like an open book, the blind youth's face showed the deep emotion that still moved him.




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