The child's world broadened. His sensitive hearing told him more and more of Nature. But darkness, deep, impenetrable, hung as always over and around him—a black cloud, weighing heavily upon his brain. It had hung over him from the day of his birth, and he might surely have grown accustomed, resigned to his misfortune. But he was not resigned. There was some instinct in his childish being that strove ceaselessly for freedom from the blackness. And this subconscious, but unintermittent quest for the light that he had never seen left its imprint more and more deeply on his face, in an expression of undefined and tortured effort.
Still, he too had his moments of unclouded pleasure, his bright childish raptures. These came when some powerful impression, accessible to his senses, brought him new knowledge of the unseen world. For Nature, in her might and grandeur, did not remain entirely a closed book to the blind child.
There was the day when they took him to a high rock overhanging the river, and he stood listening, with an altogether new expression, to the faint splashings of the water far below; and then the sound of the pebbles rolling from underfoot, dropping down the side of the rock, made him clutch at his mother's skirts with sinking heart. Always, afterwards, the concept of depth was associated in his mind with the murmur of water at the foot of the rock and the frightened scamper of falling pebbles.
Distance, to him, was the slow fading away of a song into nothingness. And when spring thunder rolled across the sky, filling all space with its rumbling, and then retiring, with a final wrathful roar, behind the clouds—at such moments the blind child would stand listening in reverent awe. His heart would swell, and in his mind would rise a poignant sense of the majesty and sweep of the heavenly vault above him.
Sound was thus the chief medium by which the outer world could reach his understanding. The impressions received through other senses served only to supplement his sound impressions, in which all his ideas of the world were shaped.
Sometimes, when the day was at its hottest, and all sounds were stilled; when human activity came to a standstill, and Nature lay in that peculiar hush in which one can sense no movement but the unceasing, soundless flow of vital energy—at such hours, sometimes, a new expression would transform the blind boy's face. It was as though he were listening, with strained attention, to sounds that none but he could hear—sounds rising from within, from the very depths of his being, called to the surface by the great stillness without. Watching his face, at such times, one had the impression that some dim thought was sounding in his heart in melody—vague as yet, and unformed.
He was in his fifth year, thin and weakly. Indoors, he moved, even ran, about the rooms with perfect freedom. A strange, seeing how confidently he walked—never hesitating at a turn, never at a loss to find things that he wanted—might not have realised that he was blind; might have taken him simply for an unusually contemplative child, with dreamy eyes that seemed to look far out into vague distances. Out of doors, however, things were not so easy. He walked with a stick, feeling the ground with it before every step he took. When he had no stick, he would get down on hands and knees and crawl, swiftly investigating with his fingers every object encountered in his path.
It was a quiet summer evening. Uncle Maxim was out in the garden. The child's father, as usual, was still away in some distant field. Everything was still. The village was sinking into sleep, and the talk in the servants' hall had died away. The child had been put to bed half an hour past.
He lay in his room, only half-asleep. For some days, now, the very thought of this quiet evening hour had called strange memories to his mind. He could not see the darkening sky, of course; could not see the swaying tree-tops outlined in black against its starry velvet, or the shadows that gathered under the shaggy eaves of barns and stable, or the blue blackness creeping over the earth, or the glinting gold of moonbeams and starlight. Yet, day after day, he would drop off to sleep under some beautiful spell that, in the morning, he could not explain.
It would come at the hour when sleep began to dull his senses, when he no longer consciously heard the murmur of the beeches at his window, or the distant barking of the village dogs, or the trilling of the nightingale beyond the river, or the mournful tinkle of tiny bells where a colt was grazing in the meadow; when all individual sounds seemed to fade and vanish. Merged in new, soft harmony, they would now seem to come again, all these sounds, and hover in his room, filling his heart with vague, but very pleasant fancies. When morning came, he would wake in a softened, tender mood, and question his mother eagerly:
"What was it, last night? What was it?"
The mother could not answer. Perhaps, she thought, the child had been having dreams. She would put him to bed herself, every evening, bless him devoutly, and linger by his side until he seemed asleep. She never noticed anything out of the ordinary. Yet, in the morning, he would speak again of a pleasant something experienced the night before:
"It was so fine, so fine! What was it, Mother?"
And so, this evening, she had decided to stay in the child's room and watch, in the hope of finding some solution to this riddle. She sat quietly beside the bed, knitting mechanically, listening to little Petro's even breathing. Soon he seemed fast asleep. But suddenly she heard him whisper through the darkness:
"Are you still here, Mother?"
"Do go away. It's afraid of you, and it doesn't come. I was almost asleep already, and it doesn't come."
This plaintive, sleepy whisper brought a strange feeling to the mother's heart. He spoke so confidently of his fancies, as though of something very real! Still, she got up, bent over the bed to kiss the child, and slipped quietly out of the room. She would go around through the garden, she thought, and creep up unnoticed outside his open window.
And as she was coming through the garden the mystery was suddenly solved for her. The soft strains of a village pipe came floating from the stable: a simple, unembroidered melody, mingling with the night's soft murmurings. Yes, clearly, it must be this music, coming at the magic moments just before sleep, that gave the child such pleasant memories.
She paused awhile to listen, charmed by the tender Ukrainian melody, then turned back, her heart at ease, to join Uncle Maxim in the garden.
How well Iochim played! Strange, that such tender, delicate feeling should come from so seemingly coarse a fellow.