This failure cost the poor mother many tears—tears, and shame. That she, "gracious Рапi" Popelskaya, whom "the best society" had thunderously applauded—that she should be so cruelly defeated! And by whom? By that coarse stableman, Iochim, and his idiotic pipe! The angry blood came rushing to her face at the very thought of the contempt she had glimpsed in his eyes after her unfortunate concert. With all her heart, she hated "that horrid peasant".
Yet every evening, when her little one ran off to the stable, she would open her window and stand listening. At first it was with contempt and anger that she listened, seeking only to pick out the comic aspects of this "silly piping". But then, little by little—she could not herself have said how it came about—the silly piping began to hold her attention, and she would listen eagerly for the wistful, dreamy melodies. Sometimes, catching herself at this, she would wonder what it was that made them so attractive, that gave them their mysterious charm. And as time passed her question found its answer, in the blue of these summer evenings, in the blurred shadows of the twilight hours, in the amazing harmony of song and surrounding Nature.
Yes—she reflected, altogether conquered now—this music had something about it all its own, a genuine depth of feeling, a poetry and charm never to be mastered simply by rote.
True, very true. The secret of this poetry lay in the wonderful tie that binds the long-dead past with Nature, witness of this past—Nature, that never dies, and never ceases to sing to the heart of man. And Iochim, a coarse, horny-handed peasant, in clumsy boots, carried in his heart this wonderful harmony, this genuine feeling of Nature.
And Pani Popelskaya's aristocratic pride was humbled, in her heart, before this peasant stableman. She would forget his coarse clothing, and the smell of tar that hung about him—would remember nothing, through his soft melodies, but the kindly face, the gentle grey eyes, the bashful humour of the smile, half-hidden by the drooping moustache. There were still moments, however, when the angry blood would flush her cheeks; for she could not but feel that, in the struggle to win her child's interest, she had put herself on an equal footing with this peasant, in his own field, and the peasant had won.
But, day after day, the trees murmured overhead, and evening lit the stars in the dark blue of the sky and poured soft, blue-black shadow over the earth; and, day after day, Iochim's songs poured their warm melancholy into the young mother's heart. More and more, she submitted to their power; more and more, she learned to understand the secret of their simple, unaffected, untainted poetry.
Yes, Iochim's power lay in the depth, the truth of his emotion. And she—had she no share of such emotion? Why, then, did her heart burn so, and beat so wildly in her breast? Why could she not keep back the tears?
Was it not true feeling—the burning love that filled her heart for her afflicted child? Yet he kept running from her side to be with Iochim, and she knew no way of giving him such pleasure as Iochim could give.
The hot tears would flow at every remembrance of that look of pain her music had brought into his face; and there were moments when she could barely repress the sobs that choked and tore her.
Unhappy mother! Her child's blindness had become her own incurable affliction. It was this that caused her exaggerated, almost morbid tenderness; this, engrossing her whole being, that rent her poor, sore heart by a thousand unseen ties at every sign of suffering in the child. And it was this that made her strange rivalry with a peasant piper—a thing that could ordinarily have caused no more than faint annoyance or chagrin—the source of such extravagant, such cruel suffering.
The passing days brought her no relief. But each day did bring definite gain. More and more, she began to sense within herself the rise of that same feeling of melody, of poetry, that charmed her so in Iochim's playing. And with this new feeling came new hope. There were evenings when she hastened to the piano, in sudden confidence—determined, with its ringing chords, to drown out the gentle pipe. But, every time, a sense of fear and shame restrained her from the attempt, turning her confidence into irresolution. She would recall the pain in her child's face, and the peasant's contemptuous look—and her cheeks would burn with shame in the dark drawing-room, and her hands flutter in timid longing over the silent keyboard, that she dared not touch.
Yet, as day succeeded day, she felt an increasing sense of a new power within her. And she began to try herself, at hours when the child was out walking, or playing by himself in some far corner of the garden. Her first attempts did not satisfy her. Her hands would not play what her heart felt. The sounds they produced seemed altogether alien to her mood. Gradually, however, the mood began to come through, with ever greater power and ease. The peasant's lessons had not been in vain; and the mother's poignant love, her sensitive perception of just what it was that had won her child's heart so completely, helped her to master these lessons quickly. Now her fingers no longer drummed out noisy, complicated "pieces". Gentle melodies flowed from the keyboard, plaintive Ukrainian dumkas, filling the shuttered rooms, throbbing in the mother's heart.
And, at last, she gained the courage to enter into open struggle. A strange contest began, in the evening hours, between the drawing-room and Iochim's stable. As the soft trilling of the pipe began to float from the shadowed, straw-thatched stable, new sounds, full, resonant, would float out to meet it from the open windows of the drawing-room, glittering through the beeches in the bright moonlight.
Neither the child nor Iochim, at first, would listen to the "artful" manor music, so strongly were they prejudiced against it. The boy would frown at every pause in Iochim's piping, and cry impatiently,
"Why don't you play?"
But after a day or two of this Iochim's pauses became more and more frequent. Again and again he would lay down his pipe to listen, with rapidly increasing interest. The boy, too, began to listen, and no longer urged his friend to play. And a moment came when Iochim said wonderingly,
"Hear that, now—isn't it fine!"
And, still listening raptly, he took up the child and carried him through the garden to the open window of the drawing-room.
He thought that the "gracious рапi" was playing for her own pleasure, and would not notice that she had listeners. But Anna Mikhailovna, too, had been listening, in pauses, for her rival, Iochim's pipe. She had noticed that it played no more. She saw her victory, and her heart beat high with joy.
With victory, all remnant of her anger at Iochim vanished. She was happy, and realised that she owed her happiness to him; for it was he who had taught her to win back her child. And if, now, she could give the child a wealth of new impressions, they would both have their teacher, the peasant piper, to thank.