Winter came. A heavy snow fell, blanketing roads and fields and villages. At the manor, all was white. The trees in the garden were laden with fluff, as though they had pat out new foliage to replace the withered green. In the drawing-room, a bright blaze crackled in the fire-place; and everyone coming in from out of doors brought with him a whiff of freshness, an odour of new-fallen snow.
In other years Pyotr, too, had felt the poetry of this first winter day. There was that very special stir of energy that always came with his awakening, on such a morning. And there were all the familiar signs of winter—the stamping of feet in the kitchen, when people came in from the cold; and the creak-of the doors; and the tiny currents of nipping air that scampered all about the house; and the crunching footsteps out in the yard, and the new, wintry sensation that came with every outdoor sound. And then, when he drove out with Iochim into the open fields—what a delight it was to hear the sleigh runners gliding over fresh snow, and the sudden cracklings that sounded in the woods beyond the river, and echoed back from fields and road.
But now the first white day brought with it only a deeper melancholy.
Pyotr pulled on high boots, that morning, and wandered off to the old mill. His feet sank deep at every step in the untrodden snow.
The garden was very still. The frozen soil, so softly carpeted, made no sound underfoot. But the air today was sensitive to sound as at no other time of the year, carrying over great distances, clear and true, the cawing of a crow, or the blow of an axe, or even the light snapping of a twig. Now and again it brought to Pyotr's ears a strange, ringing sound, as though of glass, rising quickly to a thin, high note, then dying away at what seemed a tremendous distance. This was off at the village pond. The peasant boys were throwing stones to test the thin layer of ice that had formed on the water overnight.
The manor pond had also frozen over. But the river where the old mill stood still flowed between its snow-piled banks and murmured in the sluices, though its current was slower now, and its waters darker.
Pyotr went up to the dam and stood there, listening. The sound of the water had changed. It was heavier, and all its melody was gone. It seemed to reflect the cold that lay, like the hand of death, over all the countryside.
And Pyotr's heart, too, was filled with a chilly gloom. The dark feeling that had stirred somewhere in the utmost depths of his being, on that blissful summer evening—a vague sense of apprehension, dissatisfaction, questioning—that feeling had now grown until it usurped all the room in his soul that had once belonged to joy and happiness.
Evelina was away. She had been gone since the late autumn. Her parents had planned a visit to their "benefactress", old Countess Potocka, and the Countess had written them to be sure and bring their daughter. Evelina had not wished to go, but had yielded in the end to her father's insistence, which Maxim, too, had supported with considerable energy.
Standing now by the old mill, Pyotr tried to gain again the fullness, the harmony of the emotions he had once experienced here. Did he miss her?—he asked himself. Yes, he did. Yet, though he felt her absence, her presence too—he realised—no longer brought him happiness. It brought, instead, a new and poignant suffering, which he felt somewhat less keenly when she was away.
Only so short a while ago, every detail of that evening had been vivid in his memory—her words, the silky feel of her hair, the beating of her heart against his breast. And out of these details he had created for himself a concept of her that filled him with happiness. But now a something shapeless, amorphous—as were all the phantoms that haunted his sightless imagination—had breathed its noxious breath upon this concept, and shattered it. And he could no longer integrate his recollections into that completeness and harmony which, at the beginning, had filled him to overflowing. There had been a particle, a tiny sand-grain, of something alien lurking from the very outset somewhere deep behind his feeling; and now this particle had so expanded that it seemed to obliterate all else—as a grim storm-cloud obliterates the horizon.
The sound of her voice no longer rang in his ears. The vivid memory of that blissful evening was gone, leaving behind it a gaping emptiness. And something within him, something confined in the deepest depths of his soul, was struggling desperately to fill this emptiness.
He wanted to see her.
A dull aching—that there had always been, of course; but it had long remained no more than a vague, half-realised discomfort, much like a toothache that is not yet acute.
Since his encounter with the blind bell-ringer, consciousness, realisation, had made of this dull ache a piercing pain.
He loved her. And he wanted to see her.
Such was his mood, as day passed after day at the hushed, snow-blanketed manor.
There were times when the moments of happiness rose vividly again in memory, and Pyotr's face would clear, and his melancholy seem to lift. But this never lasted long; and in the end even these moments of comparative brightness were marred by a haunting uneasiness—as though he feared that they, too, would disappear, never to come again. His mood, in consequence, was very uneven, flashes of passionate tenderness and nervous animation alternating with long days of heavy, unrelieved dejection. The piano wept in the dark drawing-room, of an evening, in deep, almost morbid melancholy; and Anna Mikhailovna, listening, shrank with the pain each sobbing note brought to her heart.
In time, one of the worst of her fears materialised. The dreams that had agitated Pyotr's childhood began to visit him again.
Coming into his room when he was still asleep, one morning, Anna Mikhailovna noticed that he seemed strangely uneasy. His eyes were half-open, gleaming dully from under the drooping lids; his face was pale, and his expression troubled.
She paused in the doorway, looking anxiously into his face, trying to guess what might cause his uneasiness. But she saw only that his agitation was swiftly growing, his features tensing more and more in an expression of straining effort.
Then, suddenly, something seemed to move—or had she imagined it?—over the bed. It was the light, a narrow beam of brilliant winter sunlight, slanting in from the window to strike the wall just over Pyotr's head. Again, as she watched, the sunbeam seemed to quiver—and the bright spot on the wall slipped lower down. And again it slipped, and again. Slowly, barely perceptibly, the light was approaching Pyotr's half-opened eyes. And as it approached, his tension grew more and more marked.
Anna Mikhailovna stood motionless in the doorway, unable to tear her eyes from that blazing spot of light. As in a nightmare, she seemed to see its movements—step by quivering step—closer and closer to her son's defenceless eyes. Pyotr grew paler and paler, his drawn face set in that expression of painful effort. Now the yellow light touched his hair. Now its warm glow reached his forehead. The mother strained forward, in an instinctive effort to protect her child. But—as in a nightmare—her feet were rooted to the floor, and she could not move. Pyotr's eyes opened wide, now; and when the light touched his sightless pupils, his head rose from the pillow as though to meet it. A spasm passed over his lips—a smile, perhaps; or perhaps a moan. And again his face set in its look of straining effort.
But now, at last, Anna Mikhailovna managed to break free of the paralysis that had gripped her limbs. She hurried across the room and laid her hand on Pyotr's forehead. He started, and woke.
"Is that you, Mother?" he asked.
He sat up. For a moment, he seemed only partially conscious. But then the fog seemed to lift, and he said,
"I've had a dream again. I have them often, now. Only— I can never remember them, afterwards."