The boy's third winter was drawing to its close. The snow was melting out of doors, and spring streams had sprung to noisy life. The boy had been sickly all through the winter, and confined to the house, without a breath of outdoor air; but now his health began to improve.
The storm-windows were removed, and the joy of spring burst into the house with redoubled vigour. The merry sun flooded the rooms with light. The beeches, still bare, swayed as always just outside the windows. And in the distance lay the black, bare fields, dotted here and there with white heaps of melting snow. In many spots the grass already showed, a pale, tender green. The very air was softer, easier to breathe. And the whole household felt a sense of renewal, a springtime surging of cheerful, vital energy.
To the blind boy, spring came only as hurried sounds, filling the rooms. He heard the rush of the spring waters, stream racing after stream, leaping among the stones, cutting their way through the soft, wet earth. He heard the beeches whispering by the windows. Their branches kept brushing together, and sometimes a twig would strike a window-pane and set it tinkling. He heard the hurried, insistent patter of a myriad falling drops, where the icicles that hung from the roof, caught by the frost at dawn, were now melting in the sun. Sharp and clear, these sounds came into the house—like round, swift pebbles, striking upon his hearing. Sometimes, too, through these nearer sounds, came the call of the cranes, floating down to earth from distant heights and fading gradually into silence, as though melting away in the clear air.
These days of Nature's springtime animation brought to the child's face a look of bewilderment and distress. He would stretch out his neck and draw his brows, listening painfully—then, as though frightened by this confusion of sounds, suddenly stretch out his arms to his mother, and press close against her breast.
"What ails the child?" the mother wondered, and asked of everyone around her.
Uncle Maxim looked long and earnestly into the boy's face, seeking some explanation of his strange alarm. But he found nothing.
"He ... he can't understand," the mother said hesitantly, watching the child's expression of tortured question and bewilderment.
Truly, he was frightened and uneasy—now puzzling over the new sounds, now wondering that the old ones, to which he had grown used, had suddenly fallen still, disappeared, he could not guess where to.
The chaos of early spring was stilled. As the days went by, the hot sun, beaming down, brought Nature's labours more and more into their normal rhythm. Life tensed, as it were. Its advance grew swifter, gathering speed like an engine when the throttle is thrown open. The meadows turned green, and the scent of birch buds filled the air.
It was decided to take the boy out through the fields, to the bank of the near-by river.
The mother took him by the hand. Uncle Maxim, on his crutches, walked beside them. They went through the fields together towards a grass-grown hillock by the riverside, where the ground had been thoroughly dried by wind and sun. From the top of the hillock, a broad view opened out over the surrounding country.
To the mother and Uncle Maxim the day was so bright, as they set out, that they had to screw up their eyes against the glare. The sunbeams warmed their faces, but the spring wind, fluttering unseen, fanned away this warmth and replaced it with a refreshing coolness. There was something intoxicating in the air, something inducive of a sweet, sleepy languor.
The mother felt a sudden clinging pressure of the little hand she held. But the heady breath of spring had made her less sensitive than always to this signal of the child's uneasiness. She walked on, her face uplifted, drawing deep, eager breaths of the spring air. Had she looked down, even for an instant, she must have noticed the child's strange expression. His open eyes were turned straight to the sun, and his lips were parted, in a look of dumb amazement. He breathed in short, quick gasps, like a fish that has been jerked out of the water. At moments, a look of almost tortured rapture would break through his helpless bewilderment, passing over the little face in a sort of nervous spasm and lighting it up for an instant, only to be replaced again by that look of dumb amazement, of frightened, perplexed inquiry. Only his eyes remained unmoved, unseeing, inexpressive.
They climbed the hillock, and sat down on its grassy top. The mother lifted the child to settle him more comfortably—and again he clutched at her hand, as though he were afraid that he would fall, as though he lacked the feeling of the firm earth under him. But again, absorbed by the spring beauty all about her, the mother did not notice his uneasiness.
It was midday, and the sun hung almost motionless in the blue heights. The river lay below, broad and deep, in the fullness of its spring waters. It had broken through its winter coat and carried it off, all but a few last floes of melting ice that still drifted here and there—white spots on the bright surface. The flooded water-meadows were like broad lakes; and white cloudlets—reflected, with the inverted blue arch of the sky, in their quiet depths—drifted about them and disappeared, like the melting ice-floes on the river. Now and again the breeze would set the water rippling, sparkling in the sunlight. Beyond the river, the fields lay black and wet and steaming, and through the quivering haze one glimpsed thatched hovels in the distance, and, farther still, the dim blue outline of the forest edge. The earth seemed to breathe, in long, sighing breaths, sending up fragrant incense in worship to the skies.
All Nature was one great temple, arrayed in readiness for holiday. But to the blind boy there was only darkness, vast, unbounded; a darkness that had come into unwonted agitation all around him, that moved, and rang, and rumbled, that reached out to him, urged upon him from every side new, never before experienced impressions, in such multitude as made his little heart beat fast and painfully.
With his first steps out of doors, when the hot day struck him full in the face, warming his delicate skin, he had turned his unseeing eyes instinctively towards the sun, as though in understanding that here was the centre, the focus to which all the world around him gravitated. The clear distances on every side, the blue vault above, the far circle of the horizon—of these he knew nothing. He knew only that something material, something gentle, caressing, touched his face and warmed it. And then something cool and light, but less light than the sunny warmth, took the soft warmth away and swept his face with a refreshing coolness. Indoors, the boy had learned to move freely about the rooms. Space, there, was empty. But here—here he was seized by something that came over him in sweeping waves, in inexplicable alternation: now gently caressing, now rousing, intoxicating. The sun's warm touch would be swiftly blown away, and the wind would seize his cheeks, his temples—would circle his head, from chin to nape, until his ears began to ring—would pull at his whole body, as though trying to lift him up and carry him off into that space his blind eyes could not see. It tugged at his consciousness, inducing forgetfulness, lassitude. And the child's hand clung hard to the mother's; his heart trembled, and almost stopped.
When they sat him down in the grass he felt a little easier, at first. The feeling of strangeness was still there, filling his whole being; but through it, now, he began to distinguish one and another of the sounds around him. The dark, caressing waves came over him as before. They seemed even to penetrate into his body; for his blood pulsed in his veins in rhythm with the coming and the going of these waves. But now they brought sound with them: a lark's clear trill; the soft murmur of a young birch in new leaf; a faint splashing in the river. A swallow circled giddily, somewhere very near, its light wings whistling; the swarming midges droned; and at intervals, over all else, came the long and melancholy cry of a ploughman, urging on his oxen.
But the child could not grasp all these sounds together, in their oneness. He could not unite them, could not arrange them in proper perspective. They were all separate, coming into the sightless little head each by itself: some soft and vague, some loud, clear, deafening. Sometimes they all came at once, crowding unpleasantly on one another, in incomprehensible disharmony. And still the wind from the fields kept up its whistling in his ears. The waves came over him, faster, faster, and now their din dimmed all the other sounds, making them seem to rise from some other world than this—like memories of days already past. And as the sounds grew dimmer, a tingling lassitude seemed to pour into the childish breast. The boy's face twitched in the rhythm of these waves coming over him. His eyes closed, opened, closed again. His brows came into uneasy movement. Every feature showed his questioning, his arduous effort of brain and of imagination. Childish and weak as yet, and overburdened with new impressions, his consciousness began to tire. It still struggled, still tried to cope with the sensations and impressions flooding in upon it from every side—to keep its balance among them, to merge them into some sort of oneness and thus to master, to conquer them. But the task was too great for the child's unlit brain, deprived of the aid of visual perception.
And the sounds kept coming, flying, falling one over another; and they were still so ringing, all of them, and so unlike. The waves came rolling with greater and greater tension, coming up from the clamorous darkness around the child and going off into that same darkness, to be followed by new waves, and new sounds. Faster, higher, more and more torturing, lifting him, rocking him, lulling him. And again, over all this dimming chaos, the long and melancholy human cry. And then all was still.
Moaning softly, the child fell back into the grass. The mother turned, and cried out in alarm. He lay still in the grass, his face blanched. He had fainted.