Vladimir korolenko the blind musician



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VI


From that time on, Petro went out to the stable every evening. It never occurred to him to ask Iochim to play in the day-time. To his mind, evidently, the bustle and movement of the daylight hours excluded all thought of these gentle melodies. But as evening drew on the child would be seized with a feverish impatience. Tea, and then supper, were of significance only as signs that the eagerly awaited time was near. And though the mother felt an unreasoning, instinctive dislike for this attraction that drew him so strongly, she could not forbid her darling the pleasure of spending the evening hours, before he was put to bed, listening to Iochim's music in the stable. These hours were now the happiest the child knew. The evening's impressions, as the mother saw with searing jealousy, would remain with him all through the following day. Not even her caresses could evoke his former undivided response. Even when he nestled in her arms, his dreamy look would show that he was thinking of Iochim's music.



It was then that she recalled her own musical accomplishments. It was not so many years, after all, since she had come out of boarding school—Pani Radetskaya's establishment, in Kiev, where, among other "pleasant arts", she had been taught to play the piano. True, this was not too pleasant a memory; for it involved a lively recollection of Fraulein Klapps, the music teacher, an elderly German spinster, hopelessly thin, and hopelessly prosaic, and—what was worst of all—hopelessly cross. She had been very skilful, this acid-tempered lady, at "breaking in" her pupils' fingers and making them flexible; and wonderfully successful, too, in murdering any feeling the girls might have had for the poesy of music. That is a timid feeling, often; and Fraulein Klapps' very presence would have been enough to frighten it away—not to speak of her methods of teaching. And so, after leaving school, young Anna Yatsenko had never had the slightest inclination to go on playing. Nor had this changed with marriage. But now, as she listened to the music this simple Ukrainian peasant drew from his pipe, a new feeling—a lively feeling of melody—began to grow in her heart, side by side with her growing jealousy; and the memory of the German spinster began to fade. And, in the end, Pani Popelskaya asked her husband to buy her a piano.

"As you wish, my love," replied this model husband. "I had thought you weren't fond of music."

The order was sent off that very day. But it would take two or three weeks, at the least, before the piano could be purchased and brought out from town.

And still the pipe trilled its summons every evening; and the boy would run off to the stable without even stopping to ask permission.

The stable smelled of horses, fresh, fragrant hay, and leather harness. The horses would stand quietly munching, with an occasional rustle as they nosed at the hay in their mangers. When the pipe fell silent for a moment, the murmur of the beeches in the garden would come clearly through the evening hush. Petro would sit motionless, as under a charm, drinking in the music.

He would never interrupt. But whenever the music stopped, if it was more than for a minute or two, his charmed listening would give way to a strange, eager excitement. He would stretch out his hands for the pipe, and, with trembling fingers, press it to his lips; but his breath would come so short, in his eagerness, that at first he could produce only faint, quivering trills. Later, little by little, he began to master the simple instrument. Iochim would place his fingers, showing him how to produce each different tone; and, though his tiny hand could barely reach .across the row of finger holes, he soon learned how all the notes were placed. Each note, to him, had its own countenance, its own individual nature. He knew, now, in which of the holes it lived, and how to bring it out. And often, when Iochim was playing some simple tune, the child's fingers would move in unison with his teacher's. He had gained a clear conception of the notes of the scale, their sequence and their location.




VII


Three weeks passed, and, at long last, the piano arrived. Petro stood in the yard, listening intently to the bustle. It must be very heavy, this "imported music", for the wagon creaked when the men started to lift it, and the men themselves kept grunting, and their breath came loud and laboured. Now they moved towards the house, with heavy, measured step. And at each step something above them hummed and moaned and tinkled in the strangest way. Then they set this queer "music" down in the drawing-room, and again it made that deep, dull, humming sound—as though it were threatening someone, in passionate anger.

All this induced a feeling very near to fright, and did not incline the child in favour of the new arrival—inanimate, perhaps, but clearly not sweet-tempered. He wandered away into the garden. There, he did not hear the workmen setting up the instrument in the drawing-room; did not hear the tuner, summoned from town, trying the keys and adjusting the wire strings. Only when all was ready did his mother send for him.

Now Anna Mikhailovna was ready to celebrate her triumph over the simple village pipe. Her piano came from Vienna, and it was the work of a famed master. Surely, now, Petro would stop running to the stable. Once again, all his joys would have their source in his mother. With a gay smile in her eyes, she watched the child come timidly into the room, with Uncle Maxim; gaily, she glanced at Iochim, who had asked permission to come and hear the "foreign music", and now stood bashfully in the doorway, his eyes on the floor, his forelock dangling. When Maxim and the child had settled themselves to listen, she brought her hands down suddenly on the piano keys.



It was a piece she had mastered brilliantly at Pani Radetskaya's boarding school, under the guidance of Fraulein Klapps. A tremendously loud composition, and quite complicated, demanding great flexibility in the player's fingers. At the public examination before leaving school, Anna Mikhailovna had earned herself—and particularly her teacher—great praise by her performance of this difficult work. And, though no one could be sure, of course, there were many who suspected that her capture of quiet Pan Popelsky had been accomplished precisely in the brief fifteen minutes it had taken her to play her piece. Today, she played it in the hope of quite another victory—to win back her old place in her son's little heart, beguiled from her by the love of a peasant pipe.

This time, however, her hopes were in vain. The piano came from Vienna; but it could not contend with a bit of Ukrainian willow. True, the piano had great advantages: costly wood, the finest of strings, the wonderful craftsmanship of its Viennese maker, the broad range of tone that it afforded. But the Ukrainian pipe had allies, too; for here it was in its own homeland, surrounded by its native Ukrainian countryside.

Until Iochim cut it with his knife, and burnt out its heart with red-hot wire, it had stood swaying on the bank of a little river the child knew and loved. It had been warmed by the same Ukrainian sun as he, and cooled by the same Ukrainian wind, until that day when the sharp eye of a Ukrainian piper had spied it out on its high bank. And, too, it was the harder for the foreign instrument to conquer the simple village pipe, in that the pipe had first sung to the blind child in the quiet hour when sleep was stealing over him—through the mysterious whisperings of evening, and the drowsy murmur of the beeches, with all Ukraine’s Nature as accompaniment.

Nor could Pani Popelskaya rival Iochim. True, her slender fingers were swifter than his, and more flexible, and the melody she played more intricate and colourful; and Fraulein Klapps had laboured earnestly to help her pupil master the difficult instrument. But Iochim had a native feeling for music. He loved and grieved, and in his love and grief turned to Nature for comfort. It was Nature that taught him his simple melodies: the murmur of the woods, the soft whisperings of the grass-grown steppelands; these, and the old, old songs, so infinitely dear, that had been sung to the rocking of the cradle when he was still a baby.

No, it was not so easy for the Viennese piano to conquer the simple Ukrainian pipe. Hardly a minute had passed before Uncle Maxim thumped loudly on the floor with his crutch. And, turning, Anna Mikhailovna saw on her son's pale face the same expression it had worn when he fell back into the grass on that memorable day of their first spring outing.



Iochim looked pityingly at the child, and—with a contemptuous glance at the "German music"—strode out of the house, his clumsy boots clattering loudly across the floor.


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