The boy had been born blind. Who was to blame for his misfortune? No one. Not only had there been no shade of "evil intent" on anybody's part, but the very cause of the misfortune lay concealed somewhere deep down in life's mysterious intricacies. Yet, with her every glance at the blind boy, the mother's heart contracted with bitter pain. She suffered as any mother would, of course, because of her son's deficiency, in heavy foreboding of the griefs that life would hold for him; but, aside from this, in the depths of her heart she carried the aching realisation that the cause of his misfortune lay in some evil potentiality in those who had given him life. And that was sufficient to make this tiny being, with the beautiful, but unseeing eyes, an unconscious despot to whose slightest whim the entire household was obedient.
It is hard to say what might have come of the boy in time, predisposed as he was by his misfortune to an undirected bitterness of spirit, and encouraged by his entire environment to the development of egoism—had it not been for the strange fate, and the Austrian sabres, that had compelled Uncle Maxim to settle down with his sister in the country.
Gradually, almost insensibly, the presence of the blind child in the house turned the crippled soldier's restless thoughts in a new direction. He would still sit puffing at his pipe for hours on end; but the dull, bottomless pain in his eyes had given place to a look of thoughtful, interested observation. And the more Uncle Maxim observed, the harder he puffed at that pipe of his, and the more often his bushy brows frowned in displeasure. At length, one day, he made up his mind to interfere.
"This youngster," he began, issuing ring upon ring of smoke, "he'll be unhappier than me, by far. He'd have been luckier never to be born."
The young mother bowed her head, and a tear dropped on to her sewing.
"It's cruel of you to remind me of it, Max," she answered faintly. "So cruel, when you know there's nothing we can do,"
"It's only the truth I'm saying," Maxim returned. "I lack a leg and an arm, but I've got my sight. The youngster lacks sight, and in time he'll lack legs and arms as well, and all power of will besides."
"What makes you say that?"
"Do try to understand this, Anna," he said, more gently. "I wouldn't speak so harshly without reason. The boy is clearly very responsive. He has every chance, as yet, of developing his other capacities to a degree where they may compensate his blindness, at least in part. But development requires practice, exercise. And exercise results from necessity. Only from necessity. Whereas this foolish solicitude, that guards him against all necessity of effort, kills his every chance of fuller development."
The mother was not stupid. She found the strength to overcome the spontaneous impulse that had sent her flying headlong to the rescue at the child's slightest cry. In the months that followed this conversation, the boy learned to crawl freely and rapidly about the house; to give his attention to every sound around him; to finger every object that came into his grasp, with an eager interest seldom to be observed in other children.
He quickly learned to recognise his mother—by her gait, by the rustle of her dress, by a multitude of other signs that none but he could distinguish. No matter how many people there might be in the room, or how they might move about, he would go unerringly through the room to her. When she took him up, however unexpectedly, he always knew that it was she. When others lifted him, he would pass his fingers lightly over their faces, and would quickly recognise the members of the household—his nurse, and Uncle Maxim, and his father. But if the person who had taken him up was a stranger, the movements of the tiny fingers would grow slower. Gently, but very minutely, he would trace the outlines of the unfamiliar face, his own face set in a look of strained attention—as though his fingertips were "seeing" for him.
By nature he was a very lively, active child. But as the months passed by his temperament showed more and more the imprint of his blindness. His movements became gradually less impulsive. He developed a habit of hiding away in quiet corners, where he would sit for hours, hardly moving, his face set and strained as though he were listening for something. When the room was quiet, and his attention was not held by the changing sounds of talk and movement, he would seem to fall into thought, and an expression of bewilderment and wonder would cloud his handsome face, so unchildishly grave.
Uncle Maxim had been right. The boy's nature, responsive and richly endowed, came to his aid. By delicate receptive-ness of touch and hearing it strove, as it were, to restore whatever might be restored of fullness of perception. His sense of touch was amazing. There were times when it seemed, even, that he had some understanding of colour; for his seeking fingers would linger on brightly coloured objects, and a look of extraordinary concentration would come into his face when he handled them. The most intensive development, however, as time made increasingly clear, was that of his sense of hearing.
He soon knew every room in the house by the sounds peculiar to it; knew the gait of every member of the household; knew the creak of his invalid uncle's chair, the dry, even sound of the thread when his mother was sewing, the monotonous ticking of the clock. Sometimes, crawling about the floor, he would pause to listen to some sound that no one else could hear, and stretch out his hand after a fly that was creeping up the wall paper. When the fly took wing, his expression, at first, would change to one of painful perplexity, because he could not understand where it had gone. As he grew older, however, such disappearances no longer caused him any perplexity. He would simply turn his head in the direction the fly had taken; for his hearing had grown so keen that he could distinguish the flutter of its wings.
The world around him—alive with movement, with sound and colour—reached the blind boy chiefly in the form of sound; and his conceptions of his surroundings were chiefly sound-conceptions. His face often wore a peculiar, listening expression, his chin the least bit forward and his slender-neck outstretched. His eyebrows became strikingly mobile. But his beautiful eyes remained unmoving. And this gave his face a look at once of childish sternness and of pathos.