Vladimir korolenko the blind musician



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IV




Yes, Iochim played well. Of the exacting fiddle, even, he was master; and, time had been, none could play a Cossack dance better than he, or a gay Polish Krakowiak, at the tavern of a Sunday. There he would sit, on his bench in the corner, his fiddle tucked under his shaven chin, his tall sheepskin hat jauntily tilted; and when he brought his curved bow down on the taut, waiting strings, not many in the tavern could sit still. Even the aged, one-eyed Jew who accompanied Iochim on the double-bass would get tremendously excited. His shoulders would twitch, and his bald head, in its black skull-cap, sway, and the whole of his thin little frame mark time to the sprightly melody, while his clumsy instrument seemed to strain almost to breaking point in the effort to make its heavy bass keep up with the fiddle's swift, light treble. What, then, remains to be said of the baptized—whose legs have always been prone to tap and swing at the first hint of gay dance music?

But Iochim fell in love with Marya, a servant girl on a neighbouring estate. And soon the merry fiddle lost all its charm for him. True, it had failed to win him cruel Marya's heart. She preferred a German valet's shaven features to the Ukrainian stableman's moustache and music. And from the day that Marya made her choice, Iochim's fiddle was never heard again at the tavern, nor yet at the young folks' evening gatherings. He hung the once-loved instrument on a peg on the stable wall, and did not seem to care when, one by one, what with the dampness and his neglect, its strings all snapped—snapped with such a loud and piteous twanging that even the horses neighed in sympathy and turned to stare at the fiddle's hard-hearted master.

From a Carpathian mountaineer passing through the village, Iochim bought a wooden pipe to replace his fiddle. Perhaps he felt that the pipe's sweet, plaintive tones would be more appropriate to his bitter lot, more expressive of the melancholy that filled his rejected heart. But the mountain pipe failed to satisfy his need. He tried others—a good half-score of them. He did everything a man could do: scraped them, whittled them, soaked them in water and dried them in the sun, hung them up where the wind could blow at them from every side. But nothing did any good. The mountain pipes would not express the grief of his Ukrainian heart. They whistled when they should have sung, and squealed when he tried to make them hum. They simply would not lend themselves to Iochim's mood. And so, in the end, he flew into a temper and declared that there wasn't a mountaineer in the world who could make a decent pipe. No, he would have to make his pipe himself, with his own hands.

For days he wandered, frowning, through the fields and marshes. At every clump of willow he would pause, to pick and choose among the branches. Here and there, he would cut a branch or two; but none of them seemed really to satisfy him. His frown never relaxed, and he did not drop his search. But then he came upon a quiet river pool, where the lazy current barely swayed the white cups of the water-lilies, and luxuriant growths of willow, bending dreamily over the still, dark depths, kept out every breeze. Iochim pushed through the willows to the river-bank, and stood a while, looking about him. And suddenly—he could not have said why—he knew that here he would find what he had been seeking. His face cleared, and he pulled his clasp-knife free of its strap inside his boot-top. After a searching look up and down the line of rustling bushes, he made his choice, and strode up to a straight, slender trunk at the very edge of the steep bank. He flipped it with his finger, and watched it sway, lithe and resilient; listened a while to the murmur of its leaves, and threw back his head in pleasure.

"There it is," he mumbled happily. And all the other branches he had cut went flying down into the water.

The pipe turned out wonderfully well.

First he dried the willow bole. Then he burnt out its heart with a red-hot wire; burnt six round holes in its side, and cut a seventh, slanted opening; and plugged one end tight with a bit of wood, with a narrow, slanted slit in it. He hung the pipe up out of doors, and let it hang a whole week for the sun to warm and the wind to cool. And when he took it down he shaped it carefully with his knife, and smoothed it with glass, and gave it a good rubbing with a bit of coarse woollen cloth. At the top he made it round; but the lower half was faceted, and on the facets, with the aid of twisted bits of iron, he burnt all sorts of interlaced designs. When all was done, he tried a swift scale or two—and, with a muffled exclamation, hid the pipe hurriedly away in a safe corner, by his bed. No, it was not for the bustling daylight hours—his first trial of its worth. But when evening fell, its music came pouring from the stable— tender, dreamy, vibrant. Iochim was satisfied. The pipe responded as though it were a part of his own being. Its music seemed to issue from his own warm, grieving heart.

Every turn, every shade in his sorrow sounded in this wonderful pipe, to fly, note by note, into the still, listening evening.




V




Now Iochim was in love with his pipe, and celebrating his honeymoon with it. Through the day he did his work as always—watered the horses, harnessed them when needed, drove for Pani Popelskaya or for Uncle Maxim; and at times, when he glanced in the direction of the neighbouring village, where the cruel Mary a lived, his heart would be very heavy. But when evening came all the world would be forgotten, and even the thought of Marya's dark eyes would haze over, somehow, losing its searing reality— would hover in a sort of misty veil, only so far perceived as to lend a wistful, dreamy flavour to the music of the wonderful new pipe.

And so, one evening, Iochim lay on his bed in the stable, in this state of musical ecstasy, pouring out his whole soul in vibrant melodies. He had altogether forgotten the hardhearted beauty—had forgotten, almost, his own existence—when suddenly he started, and sat up abruptly. Just as the music was at its sweetest, a tiny hand had brushed lightly, swiftly down his face, and over his hands, to the pipe. On the pipe it stopped, fingering it in eager haste. There was something alive, right there beside Iochim. He could hear the quick, excited breathing.

"The Lord preserve us!" he gasped—the usual formula for exorcising the powers of evil; and, to make sure, demanded sternly, "God's, or Satan's?"

But a moonbeam, glinting in at the open stable door, soon showed him his error. Beside the rough bed, his little hands eagerly extended, stood the manor folks' blind boy.

It was an hour or so later that the mother tiptoed into the nursery, to see how little Petro slept. His bed was empty. For a moment she was badly frightened; but she quickly guessed where the boy might be.

Iochim was very much abashed when, laying down his pipe for a breathing spell, he suddenly noticed his "gracious pani" in the stable doorway. She had evidently been standing there some time, listening to his music and watching her boy, who sat on Iochim's bed, wrapped in a big sheepskin jacket, still listening eagerly for the interrupted music.


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