Little Petro was out alone, on a low hillock by the river-bank. The sun was setting, and the evening was very still. There was no sound but the distant lowing of the village herd. The boy had been playing; but now he laid aside his pipe and threw himself back in the grass, yielding dreamily to the sweet lassitude of the summer evening. He was almost asleep when, suddenly, the hush was broken by light footsteps down below. Annoyed at this interruption, he raised himself on his elbow to listen. The footsteps stopped at the bottom of his hillock. Unfamiliar steps.
"Little boy!" a child's voice called up to him. A girl's voice. "Who was playing here just now, do you know?"
Petro did not like such violations of his solitude, and it was none too cordially that he answered,
"That was me."
An exclamation of surprise burst from the little girl below.
"It was beautiful," she cried, in naive admiration.
Petro made no response. But his uninvited visitor did not leave.
"Why don't you go away?" he demanded at length, after waiting in vain for the sound of her retreating footsteps.
Her tranquil voice fell pleasantly on the blind boy's ears. But he declared, uncordially as before,
"I don't like people coming where I am."
The little girl laughed.
"Hear that!" she exclaimed. "Goodness me! Is all the earth yours, then, that you can forbid anyone to walk on it?"
"Mother tells everyone not to bother me here."
"Mother?" the little girl said slowly. "Well, but my mother lets me come out here to the river."
Petro had seldom encountered such persistent refusal to do as he wished. Indeed, he had been rather spoiled by the ease with which all yielded to his will. And now a wave of nervous anger passed over his face. He set up in the grass, crying excitedly, over and over,
"Go away! Go away! Go away!"
What might have happened next, it is hard to tell; but at this point Iochim's voice broke in, calling Petro to his tea, and the boy ran off.
"What a horrid little boy!"—were the last words he heard, called after him in a tone of heartfelt indignation.
On his hillock again, next day, Petro recalled this clash with no remnant of annoyance. He would even have liked to have her here again—this little girl who spoke in so tranquil, so pleasant a voice. He had never heard a child's voice like that before. The children he knew were always shouting, or loudly laughing, or quarrelling, or crying. Not one of them ever talked so pleasantly as she did. He began to be sorry he had been rude to her. Now, he supposed, she would never come again.
Nor did she come, for three whole days. But on the fourth day Petro heard her footsteps again, down on the river-bank. She was walking slowly, humming some Polish song. The pebbles along the bank, as she trod on them, made little crunching noises.
"Hullo," Petro called, as she was passing by the hillock. "Is that you again?"
The little girl did not answer. The crunching of the pebbles continued. She walked on without a pause, humming her song with a deliberate carelessness in which Petro sensed her unforgotten injury.
A little past the hillock, however, she finally stopped. There was no sound at all for a moment or so, while she stood playing with some flowers she had gathered. Petro, waiting for her answer, felt the tinge of deliberate disdain in her sudden pause and silence.
Only when her flowers were all arranged did she look up and ask, with a great air of dignity,
"Don't you see it's me?"
The simple question sent a bitter pang through the blind boy's heart. He did not answer. Only his hands, hidden in the grass, made a sudden convulsive movement.
But a beginning had been made.
"Who taught you to play the pipe so beautifully?" the little girl asked, still standing where she had stopped, and playing with her flowers.
"Iochim," Petro replied.
"It's beautiful! Only, what makes you so cross?"
"I ... I'm not cross with you," Petro said softly.
"Well, then, neither am I cross. Shall we play games?"
"I can't play games," he said, hanging his head.
"You can't play games? But why?"
"No, but really, why?"
"Because," he repeated, barely audibly, hanging his head still lower.
He had never before had to speak so directly of his blindness, and the little girl's simplicity, the naive persistence with which she pressed her question, sent a new pang through his heart. The little girl climbed up the hillock and sat down beside him in the grass.
"You're awfully funny," she said condescendingly. "That's because you don't know me yet, I suppose. When we get acquainted, you won't be frightened any more. I'm never frightened, not of anyone."
As her clear, carefree little voice died away, Petro heard a soft rustling of stalks and leafage. She had dropped her flowers into her lap.
"You've been picking flowers," he said. "Where did you find them?"
"Over there," she returned, turning her head to indicate the direction.
"In the meadow?"
"In the woods, then. What flowers are they?"
"Don't you know them? What a queer boy you are! Really, so queer!"
Petro took a flower, then another. Swiftly, lightly, his fingers caressed the leaves and blossoms.
"This is a buttercup," he said. "And here's a violet."
And then he had the wish to know his visitor in the same way. Leaning lightly on her shoulder, he lifted his hand to feel her hair, her eyes, the outlines of her face—pausing now and again, closely studying the unfamiliar features.
All this took place so suddenly, so swiftly, that at first the little girl was too amazed to protest. She sat staring at him silently, her wide eyes reflecting a feeling very close to horror. Only now did she notice that there was something very unusual about this boy. His pale, delicate face was set in an expression of strained attention that seemed out of keeping, somehow, with his unmoving gaze. His eyes looked away somewhere, at anything but what he was doing, and they reflected the gleam of the setting sun in the strangest way. For an instant, it all seemed to her a dreadful nightmare.
But then she wrenched her shoulder free and jumped to her feet, sobbing.
"Why do you frighten me so, you horrid boy?" she cried angrily, through the tears. "What harm have I done you?"
He sat there in the grass, altogether bewildered. His head fell, and a strange feeling, a mingling of humiliation and chagrin, filled his heart with pain. This was his first experience of the humiliation that is so often the cripple's lot: the realisation that his physical shortcoming may arouse not only compassion, but fear. He could not clearly analyse it, of course—this bitter feeling that oppressed him so; but its vagueness, his lack of lucid comprehension, in no way lessened the suffering that it brought.
A wave of searing pain rose to his throat. He threw himself down in the grass and broke into tears. His sobs grew more and more violent, shaking his whole little frame, the more so that, with inborn pride, he was trying his utmost to suppress them.
The little girl had run off down the hill; but now, hearing his sobs, she turned in surprise and looked back. And the sight of him, flat on his face in the grass, sobbing so bitterly, made her sorry for him. She came slowly up again, and bent over the weeping boy.
"Look here," she said softly, "what are you crying for? Afraid I'll tell? Well, then, I won't. Not anyone. Come, now, don't cry."
The kindly words, and the caressing tone, evoked a new and still more violent burst of sobbing. The little girl crouched beside him, and, after a moment, stroked his hair gently once or twice. Then, with the gentle insistence of a mother soothing her punished child, she lifted his head and began to dry his tear-wet eyes with her handkerchief.
"There, there, now," she murmured, as a woman might, "there's enough of that! I'm not angry any more, at all. I can see you're sorry that you frightened me."
"I didn't mean to frighten you," he said, drawing a deep breath to keep down the nervous sobs.
"Well and good, then. I'm not angry any more. You'll never do such a thing again, I know you won't!"
She tugged at his shoulders, trying to make him sit up beside her.
He obeyed her tugging hands. Now he sat facing the sunset, as before; and when the little girl looked into his face, lit by the crimson glow, she felt again that there was something strange about it. The boy's lashes were still wet with tears; but his eyes, behind the lashes— they were so unmoving! His face still twisted in nervous spasms; yet, at the same time, it expressed such deep, unchildlike, such oppressive sorrow!
"But just the same, you're awfully queer," she said, wonderingly, but sympathetically.
"No, I'm not queer," the boy returned, his face twisting pitifully. "I'm not queer. I ... I'm blind."
"Bli-ind?" she cried—and her voice quivered, as though this grievous word, that the boy had said so softly, had struck a cruel blow to her little woman's heart, a blow that no words of comfort could ever efface.
"Bli-ind?" she repeated. Her voice broke altogether, and, as though seeking refuge from the flood of pity that swept through all her little being, she suddenly threw her arms about the blind boy's neck and pressed her face to his.
The shock of this grievous discovery dispelled all trace of the tiny woman's usual staid dignity, transforming her into a hurt child, helpless in her pain. And now it was she who burst into bitter, inconsolable weeping.