Uncle Maxim was very much alarmed by this development. He had been ordering books on physiology, psychology, and pedagogy, of late, and had thrown himself with his usual energy into the study of all that science had to offer concerning the mystery of a child's soul, its growth and development.
These new studies had more and more absorbed him, and as a result the old grim thoughts of his unfitness for life's struggle—"a burden for the baggage train", "a trampled worm, grovelling in the dust"—had long since been aired out of his square-hewn head. In their place had come a thoughtful interest—even, at times, rainbow dreams, that warmed his aging heart. Nature, he realised more and more clearly, while depriving his little nephew of sight, had yet been kind to him in other things. To all impressions from the outer world accessible to his senses, the child responded with remarkable fullness and vigour. And Uncle Maxim felt it his mission to develop the child's native abilities; to exert his own intelligence and influence in an attempt to counterbalance the blind injustice of fate; to fill his empty place in the ranks with a new fighter for life's cause, a recruit not to be swayed by any influence but his.
Who could tell?—the old Garibaldian reflected. The spear and the sword, after all, were not the only means of struggle. Some day, perhaps, this child whom fate had so unjustly slighted would turn whatever weapon he might master to the defence of other unfortunates, victims of life's injustice. And then the crippled old soldier would not have lived in vain.
Even emancipated minds, back in the 'forties and 'fifties, were not altogether free of superstitious belief in that "mystery of Nature" known as predestination. It is hardly to be wondered, then, that as the child developed, evincing remarkable ability, Uncle Maxim came to regard his very blindness as a clear sign of such "predestination".
Yes, "Fate's victim, for the victims of Fortune"—such was the device that he would choose for his fosterling's battle standard.
For several days after that first spring outing the boy lay in his bed, delirious. And in all that time, whether he lay still and silent, or tossed and murmured, or seemed to be listening for something, that strange expression of bewilderment never left his face.
"Really," the young mother said, "he looks as if he were trying to understand something, and couldn't."
Uncle Maxim nodded thoughtfully. He realised that the child's strange uneasiness, and his sudden swoon, had been caused by a too great profusion of new impressions, which had overtaxed his imagination. Now, when the child began to convalesce, it was decided that these new impressions be admitted to him only gradually—piecemeal, as it were. At first the windows in his room were kept tight shut. Then, as he grew stronger, they would be opened now and again, for a short while at a time. Later, when he could walk, the mother took him about the house, then out to the porch, then down into the garden. And whenever the look of distress came into his face, she would explain to him what caused these sounds he could not understand.
"That's a shepherd's horn, off beyond the woods," she would say. "And there's a robin—you can hear it through the chirping of the sparrows. And now the stork's clattering its bill, up on its wheel. [ In the Ukraine, and also in Poland, people set up old cart-wheels for storks to nest on, at the top of tall posts. It only got back the other day, from oh! such distant lands, and now it's building its nest in the same place as last year."
The child would nod and press her hand, his face glowing with gratitude. And his expression, as he listened to the sounds around him, would be one of thoughtful, understanding interest.
Now he began to put questions about everything that caught his attention; and his mother or, more often, Uncle Maxim would tell him about the creatures or the objects that produced the sounds he heard. The mother's descriptions were more lively and vivid than Uncle Maxim's, and impressed themselves more sharply on the child's imagination; but they were often too great a strain upon his understanding. The mother herself suffered. Her eyes would fill with helpless pain and sorrow. But, as best she could, she tried to give her child some understanding of shape and colour. The boy would sit listening intently, his eyebrows drawn, his forehead puckered in tiny furrows—his childish mind clearly straggling with a task beyond its power, his imagination striving fruitlessly to build up new concepts with the aid of what she tried to tell him. Uncle Maxim always frowned at these scenes; and when tears rose in the mother's eyes, and the boy turned pale with his effort to understand, Maxim would break in, silence his sister, and begin to talk himself, wherever possible confining his explanations to concepts of space and sound. The look of strain would fade from the child's face.
"Is it big, then? How big is it?"
They had been talking about the stork that stood lazily clattering its bill, up on its wheel.
He spread out his arms, as he always did when asking about the size of things, for Uncle Maxim to stop him when they were far enough apart. But his little arms went out and out, and still Uncle Maxim said:
"No, it's bigger than that. Much bigger. If we took it into the house and set it down on the floor, its head would reach higher than the backs of the chairs."
"So big!" the boy responded musingly. "But a robin, it's only like this"—and he brought his palms almost together.
"Yes, a robin's like that. But then, you see, the big birds never sing so well as the tiny ones do. Robins try hard to make everyone like their singing. Whereas a stork is a serious bird. Stands on one leg, up there in its nest, looking around it like a surly master watching over his servants, and grumbling just as loud as ever it pleases. It doesn't care a snap if its voice is hoarse, or if strangers happen to hear."
The boy would laugh merrily at such tales, and forget the distress and strain of his efforts to understand his mother's stories. But—it was those stories that attracted him, and he turned to his mother with his questions, rather than to his uncle.