[* In which considerable changes and additions have been made.]
The present revision and enlargement of a story which has already appeared in several editions is rather a departure from the usual, I realise; and a brief explanation must be offered. My etude centres, as its basic psychological motif, around man's instinctive, organic craving for light. From this craving arises the spiritual crisis in the hero's development, and its eventual resolution. In criticism of the story, both printed and oral, I have repeatedly encountered an objection which at first glance may seem very well founded. The craving for light, my critics feel, cannot be predicated of the born blind; for they have never seen light, know nothing of it, and cannot, therefore, be aware the lack of it. This consideration does not seem to me convincing. None of us have ever flown like birds; yet we all know how long the sensation of flight persists in dreams—all through childhood and youth. Still, I must admit that my adoption of this motif was purely a priori, based on imagination rather than on concrete knowledge. It was not until several years after the first editions of the story had come out that I chanced, in the course of one of my excursions, upon an opportunity for direct observation. The two bell-ringers (one born blind, the other blind from childhood) whom the reader will find in Chapter VI; the contrast in their moods; their attitude towards the children; Yegor's talk of dreams—all this was noted in my memorandum book as I actually observed it in the belfry of the Sarova Monastery, Tambov Eparchy, where, perhaps, the two blind bellmen are showing visitors up the winding stairs to this very day. From the hour when I observed it, that scene in the belfry—conclusive, to my mind, in the question under debate—lay more heavily on my conscience with each new edition of the story; and it was only the difficulty of return to a once finished work that prevented me from introducing it. Of the changes finally made in the present edition, the most important is the addition of this scene. As to the rest—once I had made the return, and my mind had fallen again into its former train of thought, there could be no question, of course, of a mere mechanical insertion of the one new bit. Other changes, throughout the story, were inevitable.
February 25, 1898
A child was born, in the dead of night, to a wealthy family in the South-West Territory. The young mother lay sunk in heavy languor; but when the infant's first cry sounded, low and plaintive, she began to toss feverishly on her bed. Her eyes were shut, but her lips moved, whispering, and her pale face, still soft of outline almost as a child's, twisted as though in suffering and impatient protest—the expression a much-petted child might wear on its first contact with sorrow.
The midwife bent close over the whispering lips.
"Why? Why does he..." the mother asked, almost inaudibly.
The midwife did not understand. Again the child's cry sounded. An expression of bitter suffering passed over the mother's face, and a heavy tear welled from her eyes.
"Why? Why?" she whispered, faintly as before.
This time the midwife understood her question, and answered tranquilly:
"Why the child cries? It's always so. Don't you worry yourself about it."
The midwife heard nothing out of the ordinary in the child's cries; and the mother, she could see, was hardly conscious—did not, perhaps, even know what she was saying. Turning away from the bed, she busied herself with the infant.
The mother fell silent. Only, now and again, some grievous suffering, finding no outlet in words or movement, pressed great tears from her shut eyes. Through the heavy lashes they seeped, and rolled softly down the marble pallor of her cheeks.
Can the mother's heart have sensed the grim, the unalleviable tragedy that had come into the world with the new-born life—that hung over the infant's cradle, to follow him through all his life, to the very grave?
Or was it, perhaps, no more than delirium? Be that as it may, the child was born blind.
No one noticed it, at first. The baby boy turned on the world the same dull, vague look as, to a certain age, all new-born infants do. Day passed after day, until the new life began to be reckoned in weeks. The child's eyes cleared. The dullness lifted, and the pupils seemed to focus. But he did not turn his head to follow the bright beam of light that came into the room in company with the cheery twitter of the birds in the luxuriant country garden, with the murmur of the green beeches swaying close by the open windows. The mother, now herself again, was the first to look, in new alarm, into the baby's face—the first to notice its strange expression, its unchildlike gravity, immobility.
"Why does he stare like that? Tell me—oh, tell me why," she kept asking—seeking comfort, like a frightened dove, in the faces around her.
"What do you mean?" people would answer, unresponsive to her anxiety. "The child is like any child of the same age."
"But see how strangely his hands seem to grope."
"The child is too young to co-ordinate movements with visual impressions," the doctor explained.
"But why do his eyes look always straight ahead? Why does he never turn them? Is he—is he blind?"
And, once the fearful guess had burst from the mother's lips, no words could be found to console her.
The doctor lifted the child, turned it quickly to the light, and looked into its eyes. He seemed a little disturbed, and hurried away with no more than a few non-committal words and the promise to look in again in a day or two.
The mother trembled like a wounded bird. Sobbing, she pressed the child to her breast. But the child's eyes looked out as before, grave and unmoving.
In a day or two, as he had promised, the doctor came again—provided, this time, with an ophthalmoscope. He lit a candle and brought it up to the child's eyes; moved it away, and brought it close again. Many times over, he repeated his tests, his eyes fixed steadily on the child's pupils. And finally, deeply disturbed, he said:
"You were not mistaken, madam, to my great regret. The boy is blind. And beyond all hope of cure."
The mother received his verdict with quiet melancholy.