Maxim and Petro settled down on a heap of straw. Iochim stretched out on his bench (such being the pose best suited to his mood) and, after a moment's reflection, began to sing. His choice—whether prompted by chance or by sensitive instinct—was very fortunate. It was a scene from the history of years long past:
High, high on the hillside the reapers bend,
Reaping the ripened grain....
No one, surely, who has once heard this wonderful folk song, sung as it should be sung, can forget its melody: an old, old tune, high pitched, unhurried, tinged with the melancholy of historical reminiscence. There are no events in this song, no battle and bloodshed, no heroic deeds. It tells no story of a Cossack's parting with his sweetheart, no tale of daring raids by land, or voyages along the Danube and across the rolling blue of the sea. There is nothing in all the song but a fleeting picture, rising for an instant in a Ukrainian's memory—a wistful fancy, a fragment of a dream of the historic past. It rises suddenly, amidst the grey commonplace of the present day—dim, misty, tinged with the peculiar melancholy that breathes from memories of the vanished past. Vanished—yes, but not without trace! It still lives, this past, in the tall grave mounds where the bones of Cossack heroes lie buried, and where strange lights hover at midnight, and heavy groans are heard. It lives in legend, lives in this song, now less and less to be heard:
High, high on the hillside the reapers bend,
The Cossacks go riding by.
On the green hillside, grain is being reaped. Down below, Cossack troops are riding by.
Maxim Yatsenko forgot the world around him. The rueful melody, so wonderfully at one with the content of the song, brought the scene vividly before him: peaceful hillside fields, in the chastened evening light; the bent, silent figures of the reapers; and down below, silent too, the horsemen, rank upon rank, merging as they pass by with the evening shadows gathering in the valley.
Doroshenko himself in the fore,
Leading his men, leading his Cossack troops,
Leading them bravely and well.
And the long-drawn-out notes rang and quavered and died away, only to ring once more, calling out of the darkness new and ever new figures of past history.
The boy's face, as he listened, was sad and thoughtful. When the song dwelt on the hillside, and the reaping of the grain, he felt himself at the top of a high rock he knew, overhanging the river. Yes, that was the place. He knew it by the splashing of the river down below, where the waves struck, barely audibly, against the stones. And he knew about the reaping, too. He could hear the sound of the sickles, and the rustle of the cut ears as they fell.
But when the song turned to what was happening down below, the blind child's imagination carried him down at once from the heights to the valley.
The sound of the sickles faded away; but the boy knew that the reapers were still there, up on the hillside. They were still there, but he could not hear them because they were up there so high, high as the pines whose rustling he could hear down at the foot of his rock. And here below, down at the riverside, came the quick, even beat of horses' hoofs. Many, many horses, their hoofbeats merging into dull thunder down here in the darkness. That was the Cossacks riding by.
The Cossacks—yes, he knew about them, too. "Old Cossack"—that was what everyone called old Fedko, when he turned up, from time to time, at the manor. Many a time, Fedko had held the blind boy on his knee and passed a trembling hand over his hair. And when the boy put up his own hand to feel Fedko's face, as he did with everyone, his sensitive fingers found deep furrows, and a long, drooping moustache, and sunken cheeks, wet with the involuntary tears of deep old age. That was the sort of Cossacks that he now imagined, down at the foot of the hill, as he listened to the song. Riding their horses—bent and old and long-moustached, like Fedko. Noiseless, shapeless shadows, advancing through the darkness, weeping as Fedko always wept—weeping, perhaps, because of this moaning song that hung over hillside and valley: Iochim's mournful song of the "careless Cossack lad" who left his young wife for war's adversities, for a pipe smoked on the march.
It needed only a glance to convince Maxim that, blind though the child might be, his sensitive nature fully responded to the poetry of the song.
Under Maxim's plan the blind boy was left, in everything possible, to fend for himself. The results were excellent. Indoors, he made no impression of helplessness at all. He moved about confidently, and kept his room neat, and his clothes and toys in order. So far as was feasible, too, Maxim introduced physical exertion. The boy had a regular system of exercises; and when he was five Maxim gave him a little horse, a mild and harmless creature. The mother could not imagine, at first, how her blind child could possibly ride. It was pure madness, she told her brother. But Maxim threw all his powers of persuasion into play, and in two or three months the boy was riding freely, needing Iochim's guidance only where the paths turned sharply.
Thus, his blindness was not allowed to hinder his physical development; and, to the best of human ability, its effect on his character, too, was minimised. He was a tall child for his age, and finely built; rather pale, with delicate and expressive features. His black hair accentuated his pallor, and his big, dark eyes, almost unmoving, gave his face a peculiar expression that people would notice at first glance, and wonder at. A tiny crease that cut across his forehead; a habit of keeping his head inclined a little forward; a look of sadness that sometimes clouded his handsome features—such were the only outward effects of his blindness. His movements, in familiar places, were free and confident. Yet it was easy to see that his natural liveliness was under constraint; and there were times when it burst through in nervous fits of some intensity.