* * *
Late that autumn, when the roads were already heaped high with snow, the manor folks' young son came suddenly home, in the company of two blind beggars. The whole household was taken by surprise. He had been to Pochayev, people said, to pray to the icon of the Virgin there for healing. It was a vow that he had taken.
Be that as it might, his eyes remained clear, yet unseeing, as they had always been. But his soul—that, unquestionably, had found healing in his wanderings. It was as though some fearful nightmare had vanished for ever from the manor.
When Maxim, who had been writing all this time from Kiev, finally got home, Anna Mikhailovna greeted him with the cry,
"I'll never forgive you for this, never!"
But the look in her eyes gave the lie to her stern words.
In the long autumn evenings Pyotr told them the story of his wanderings. And when he sat down to the piano, in the twilight hours, the house would be filled with new melodies, such as he had never been heard to play before.
The trip to Kiev was postponed to the next year. And the thoughts of all the family were absorbed by Pyotr's plans and hopes for the future.
That same autumn Evelina declared to her parents her unalterable decision to be married to the blind youth "from the manor". Her mother began to cry; but her father knelt before the icons and, after prayer, declared that such, to his mind, was God's very will in the matter.
They were married, and Pyotr's life was filled with a new, quiet happiness. And yet—behind this happiness, somewhere, lurked a haunting, undefined anxiety, of which he was never entirely free. Even at his most radiant moments there was a tinge of doubting sadness in his smile—as though he could not feel that his happiness was really justified, or really lasting. The news that he was, perhaps, to be a father brought a look of sudden apprehension to his face.
Still, the life that he now led left him no leisure for his former fruitless searchings. His days were occupied by serious study, and by growing anxiety for his wife and for the child that was to come. There were moments, too, when all else was crowded back by rising memories of the blind beggars' mournful chant. At such times he would go off to the village, where a new home had been built for Fyodor Kandiba and his pock-marked nephew. Kandiba would take up his kobza; or perhaps they would simply talk, of one thing and another; and, gradually, Pyotr's thoughts would grow calmer, and his plans regain their power to inspire.
He had become less sensitive to light, and the striving to apprehend it, which had cost him such inner effort, had subsided. The deep-lying forces that had been driving him now slumbered, and he no longer stirred them by the conscious effort to fuse heterogeneous sensations into some one understandable whole. The place that these fruitless endeavours had once occupied within him was now filled by vivid memories, and lively hopes. And yet—who knows?—perhaps this very peace that had come into his soul had the effect of promoting the subconscious workings of his inner being, of helping the formless, disparate impressions that reached his nerve centres in their quest for synthesis, for fusion. For does not our mind often, when we are asleep, easily mould ideas and concepts such as it could never achieve by conscious effort?
The room was very still—the same room in which Pyotr had been born. Only an infant's wailing cry disturbed the hush. The child was now a few days old, and Evelina was recovering rapidly. But Pyotr, all these days, had seemed weighed heavily down by a foreboding of approaching sorrow.
The doctor arrived. He took up the baby, and laid it down close to the window. Jerking aside the curtain, he let a bright ray of sunlight into the room. Then he bent over the child, his instruments in his hands. Pyotr sat with bowed head, depressed and seemingly apathetic, as he had been all these last days. The doctor's proceedings seemed to mean nothing to him at all—as though he knew beforehand what the result would be.
"He's surely blind," he said, again and again. "He should never have been born."
The young doctor made no reply, but went on quietly with his tests. And then, at length, he put down his ophthalmoscope, and his voice sounded calmly, confidently through the room:
"The pupils contract. The child sees, no doubt about it."
Pyotr started, and stood up quickly. Clearly, he had heard the doctor's pronouncement. But—such was the expression on his face—he hardly seemed to have understood it. He stood motionless, one trembling hand on the window-sill for support. His upturned face was very pale, his features set.
Until that moment he had been in the power of an extraordinary agitation—a state in which, though he was hardly conscious of his own being, his every nerve and fibre was alive and quivering with expectation.
He was conscious of the darkness that surrounded him. He distinguished it, sensed its presence around him, its unbounded compass. It pressed in upon him, and his imagination strained to encompass it, to contend with it. He placed himself in its path, as though to shield his child against this vast, undulating sea of impenetrable blackness.
This was the mood that held him while the doctor was making his silent preparations. He had been uneasy all these months, of course, but—until now—some faint remnant of hope had always persisted. Now his taut nerves, strained to the breaking point, were seized by a grim, agonising fear; while hope shrank, and hid itself away deep in the inmost recesses of his heart.
And suddenly those words, "The child sees"—and everything was changed: fear vanquished, hope sprung into certainty. It was as though swift light had broken on the tense expectancy that filled his being. It was a tremendous upheaval, a cataclysm, invading his shadowed soul as the lightning flashes through dark night—dazzling, vivid. They seemed to burn themselves a blazing path into his brain—those few short words the doctor had pronounced. A spark flashed, somewhere deep within, and lit the inmost recesses of his spirit. He began to tremble. His whole being quivered, as a taut string quivers when you strike it.
And then, after this lightning flash—then, suddenly, strange visions rose to his eyes, that had lost their power to see even before his birth. Was this light, or was it sound? He did not know. It was sound come to life, sound that had shape, sound flowing in rays, like light. Sound that glowed like the high vault of the heavens; that rolled majestically, like the fiery ball of the sun; that rippled and undulated like the murmurings of the green steppeland; that swayed like the boughs of the dreamy beeches in the garden. That was the first instant; and it was the confused impressions of that instant, only, that remained afterwards in his memory. All that followed was forgotten. But he declared, insisted, afterwards that in those instants that followed he had seen.
What it was he saw, and how, and whether he really saw at all, there can be no telling. Many said it was impossible. But he insisted firmly that it was so—that he had seen the earth and the sky; had seen his mother, his wife, Maxim.
For several seconds he stood there, very still, his upturned face alight. He had so strange a look that all the others turned to stare at him, and a deep hush fell over the room. To all of them, watching him, it seemed that this was not he, standing by the window—not the Pyotr they knew so well. It was someone else, a stranger, unfamiliar. The Pyotr they knew had vanished. A veil of mystery, descending suddenly, had hidden him away.
And, in its shelter, for a few brief instants, he was alone—alone with this mystery that had come to him.
Afterwards, he retained only the feeling of a need allayed, and—the strange conviction that, in these instants, he had seen.
Might this possibly have been true?
Might it be that all those vague, dim perceptions or sensations of light that, in his one-time moments of quivering tension, of reaching-out to the bright light of day, had filtered their way by unknown paths to the dark recesses of his brain—that these clouded sensations now, in his moment of ecstasy, rose up, somehow, before his brain in utter clarity?
And the blind eyes saw the blue heavens, and the bright sun, and the limpid river, and the hillock by it, where he had wept so often in his childhood. And then the old mill, and the starlit nights when he had suffered such torment, and the silent, melancholy moon. Yes, and the dusty country roads, and the straight line of the highway; the trains of carts, catching the sunbeams in their iron wheels, and the colourful crowds among which he had sung the chant of the blind beggars.
Or was it, perhaps, wild visions that rose in his brain—of mountains such as the world has never seen, and fantastic plains, and wondrous trees that swayed on the banks of phantom rivers, in the bright rays of a phantom sun—the sun that had been seen for him by countless generations of his forebears?
Or was there, perhaps, no more than unformed sensations, in those depths of the dark brain of which Maxim had spoken—those depths where light and sound produce like effects of merriment or sadness, joy or anguish?
And what he later recalled—was it simply the music that had sounded, for an instant, in his soul—a vibrant harmony, intertwining in one all the impressions life had ever brought him, all his feeling of Nature, all his ardent love?
Who can say?
He remembered only the coming of this mystery, and its going—that final instant, when sounds and shapes merged and blended, clashing, quivering, trembling, fading, as a taut string trembles into silence: at first high and loud, then soft, softer, barely audible; like something slipping down an infinite incline, down and away into utter darkness.
And then it was gone, and all was still.
Darkness, and silence. There were still dim visions, trying to take shape in the blackness. But they had neither shape, nor sound, nor colour. Only—somewhere far, far down, the clear modulations of a scale cut through the darkness. And then they, too, slipped down into the infinity of space.
Then it was that the life in the room suddenly reached his ears, in its accustomed forms of sound. He seemed to wake from sleep. But still he stood there, radiant and joyful, pressing his mother's hand, and Maxim's.
"What came over you?" his mother asked him anxiously.
"Nothing. Only ... it seems to me ... I saw you, all of you. I ... I'm not dreaming, am I?"
"And now?" she asked breathlessly. "What now? Do you remember? Will you remember?"
Pyotr sighed heavily.
"No," he said, with some effort. "No. But that doesn't matter. Because ... because I've given all that to him, now. To the boy. And ... and to all...."
He staggered, and lost consciousness. His face grew very pale. But it was still alight with the happiness that comes when a great need has been allayed.
Three years passed.
A large audience gathered, at the Kiev "Contracts", [ The "Contracts", let us remind the reader, was the local term for the Kiev Fair.] to hear a remarkable new musician. Blind, he was; yet rumour carried the most fantastic tales of his musical talent, and of his history. He came of a wealthy family, it was said, but a band of blind beggars had stolen him from his home when he was still a child, and he had wandered with them about the countryside until, one day, a famed professor had chanced upon him and discovered his wonderful talent. Or—as others told the tale—he had left home of his own will, and joined this beggar band for some romantic reason. Be that as it might, the hall was full to capacity, and the takings (appropriated to charitable purposes unknown to the audience) complete.
Deep silence fell as a young man came forward on the platform. His face was pale, his eyes dark and beautiful. It would have been hard to believe that he was blind, had not those dark eyes been so fixed, and had he not been guided by a fair-haired young lady—his wife, as many said.
"No wonder he makes such an impression," some sceptic whispered, in the hall. "His very looks are so dramatic!"
That was so. The musician's pale face, with its look of meditative attention, his unmoving eyes, his entire aspect aroused the expectation of something unusual, something altogether out of the ordinary.
They are all lovers of their native melodies—our southern folk; and even this miscellaneous "Contracts" audience was carried away from the first by the musician's tremendous sincerity. He played no set piece—simply what came into his heart and mind. And through this improvisation breathed his vivid feeling for Nature, his sensitive ties with the direct sources of folk melody. Plastic, melodious, rich in colour, the music came pouring forth into the hall—now swelling into a majestic anthem, now sinking into gentle, pensive melancholy. At times, it would be a thunderstorm, rolling across the heavens, echoing out into space; at times—the soft steppe, swaying the grass on some old burial mound, bringing dim dreams of times long past.
When the last note died away, a storm of frenzied applause broke over the huge hall. And the blind musician sat with bowed head, listening wonderingly to the clamour. But then, once more, he raised his hands and brought them down upon the keys. In an instant, the din was hushed.
It was at this point that Maxim came in. Searchingly, he looked into the faces of the audience. And in all these myriad faces he found the same emotion, the same eager, burning gaze, fixed on the blind musician.
Maxim sat listening—and waiting. He knew so well, more than any other in the hall, the human drama that lay behind this music. At any moment, he feared, this improvisation that poured so freely, with such compelling power, from the musician's very soul, might break off suddenly, as it had so often in the past, on a note of strained and painful questioning, revealing some new wound in the player's heart. But the music continued, rising, strengthening, ever fuller and more powerful, complete master of the welded, tensely listening crowd.
And, as Maxim sat listening, he began to distinguish more and more clearly a something very familiar in the music.
Yes, that was it. The clamour of the street. A great wave rolling, rolling—bright, thunderous, alive—to break, sparkling into a thousand separate sounds; now swelling, rising, now sinking again into a distant, but incessant murmur—calm, unimpassioned, cold, indifferent.
And suddenly Maxim's heart contracted. Again, as in the past, a moan had broken into the music.
A moan broke in, and filled the hall, and died away. And again came the clamour of life, sounding ever clearer, brighter, stronger—mobile, sparkling, joyous, full of light.
No, this was not the old moan of private, selfish grief, of blind suffering and torment. Tears rose to Maxim's eyes. And he saw tears in the eyes of those around him.
"He's learned to see. Yes, that's the truth. He's learned to see," Maxim whispered to himself.
Through lively, vivid melodies, joyous, carefree, unrestrained as the wind in the steppes; through the sweeping, manifold din of life; through folk songs, wistful or solemn, there came again and again, with increasing urgency and power, a new, soul-rending note.
"So, so, dear boy," Maxim silently approved. "Overtake them in the hour of merriment and rejoicing."
Another moment—and the blind beggars' chant hung alone—all-powerful, all-absorbing—over the vast hall, over the spellbound throng.
"Alms for the blind.... Alms, in Christ's name."
But this was no mere plea for alms, no pitiful wail, drowned in the din of the streets. It carried all that it had held for Pyotr in those past days when he had fled from the piano, with distorted features, at its sound—unable to endure its bitter pain. Now, he had conquered this pain in his soul; and he conquered the hearts of all these people by the power of its truth, profound, appalling. It was black night against the background of bright day, a reminder of sorrow amid the very fullness of joy.
It was as though a thunderbolt had broken over the throng. Every heart trembled, as though the musician's swift fingers were pulling at its strings. The music ceased—but the people sat unmoving. A death-like silence filled the hall.
"Yes, he's learned to see," Maxim told himself, bowing his head. "In place of the old suffering—blind, selfish, not to be allayed—he carries now in his soul a true knowledge of life. He has come to know other people's sorrows, and other people's joys. He's learned to see, and he'll be able, now, to remind the fortunate of the less fortunate."
And the old soldier's head bowed lower still. He, too, then, had done his work in this world. He had not lived in vain. That was the message that the music bore him—this powerful, soul-commanding music, filling the hall, ruling the throng.
Such was the debut of the blind musician.