There were times during the remaining days of their visit at Stavrukovo when Pyotr's earlier animation returned, and in his own way he seemed quite cheerful. He was greatly interested by the collection of musical instruments the elder of the two young Stavruchenkos had accumulated. Many of these were new to him, and he had to try them all—each with its own, individual voice, suited to the expression of its own peculiar shades of feeling. But something, clearly, was oppressing him; and these moments of cheerfulness seemed but brief flashes against a background of increasing gloom.
None of the company ever referred to the bell-tower. The whole excursion seemed forgotten, as though by tacit agreement. But it had affected Pyotr very deeply—that was quite evident. When he was alone—or even in company, in moments of silence, when there was no talk to occupy his mind—he would sink into thoughts of his own, that brought a bitter look into his face. True, it was a look he had often worn before; but now it seemed harsher, somehow, and—very reminiscent of the blind bell-ringer's.
At the piano, in his moments of least reserve, the quivering of the bells on the high tower came often into his music, and the long-drawn sighing deep in their copper hearts. And as he played, pictures that none of the company had heart to speak of would rise in their memories only too clearly. The sombre gloom of the winding stairs, and the slender figure of the bell-ringer; the consumptive flush on his cheeks, his malice, his bitter complaints. And then, the two blind youths, up on the bell platform—so alike in posture, in expression, in the darting of their eyebrows at every sound or movement. What all these years had seemed to Pyotr's friends an expression of his own, separate individuality now revealed itself to them as the common seal of darkness, lying in equal measure on all victims of its mysterious power.
"Look here, Anna," Maxim said to his sister a few days later, when they were back at home again, "this change that's come over our boy—it started after the trip we took to the monastery. Did anything out of the ordinary happen there, do you know?"
"Ah, it's all on account of that blind lad we met," Anna Mikhailovna answered, sighing.
She had already sent warm sheepskin coats to the monastery, and money, with a letter to Father Pamfili in which she begged him, so far as it was in his power, to ease the lot of the two blind bell-ringers. True, for all her gentle, kindly heart, she had forgotten Roman at first, and Evelina had had to remind her that there were two to be provided for. "Yes, yes, of course," she had answered Evelina; but her thoughts had obviously been centred on the one—Yegor. It was to him her heart went out in aching pity, not unmixed with a strange, superstitious feeling that in sending him this offering she might propitiate some unknown, but menacing force that was already advancing, casting its grim shadow over her son's life.
"What blind lad?" Maxim demanded, very much surprised.
"Why, the one in the belfry."
Maxim's crutch came down with an exasperated thump.
"Confound these legs of mine! You forget, Anna, that I don't go clambering up belfry stairs any longer. If one could only get a little sense out of a woman! Evelina—see if you can't tell me, then, just what it was that happened in the belfry."
"The bell-ringer who took us up was blind," Evelina began. Her voice was very low. She, too, had grown paler in these last few clays. "Well, and...."
She stumbled, and stopped. Anna Mikhailovna buried her face in her hands, trying to hide the tears that wet her flaming cheeks.
"Well, and—he looked very like our Pyotr," Evelina continued.
"And no one said a word of this to me! But was there nothing else? Because after all, Anna"—and Maxim's voice, as he turned to his sister, softened in gentle reproach— "there's really no such great tragedy in that."
"Ah, it's just more than I can bear," Anna Mikhailovna returned, barely audibly.
"What's more than you can bear? That some blind lad should resemble your son?"
At this point Evelina caught Maxim's eye, and, seeing her expression, he fell silent. Anna Mikhailovna soon left the room; but Evelina remained, busy, as always, with her embroidery. For a moment, the room was very still.
"Is there more to the story, then?" Maxim asked finally.
"Yes. Pyotr didn't leave the belfry with the rest. He told Aunt Anna"—that had always been Evelina's name for Anna Mikhailovna —"to go down with the others, but he didn't follow her. He stayed behind on the platform, with the blind bell-ringer. Well, and—I stayed, too."
The question came almost mechanically—token of Maxim's long years of pedagogy.
"I—I couldn't go away," Evelina answered slowly. "They talked to one another like...."
"Like comrades in misfortune?"
"Yes. As the blind to the blind. And then Yegor asked Pyotr whether he ever saw his mother in his sleep. And Pyotr said no, he didn't. And Yegor—he doesn't, either. But there's another blind bell-ringer there, Roman, and he does see his mother. She's an old woman now, but he still sees her young."
"So. And what more?"
After a moment's hesitation, Evelina raised her eyes to meet Maxim's. Their blue depths were dark with suffering and struggle.
"That other one, Roman—he's kind-hearted, and he seems at peace with life. His face is sad, but there's no malice in it. He wasn't blind from birth. But Yegor..." she paused, then hurried on evasively, "He suffers dreadfully."
"Say what you mean, child," Maxim interrupted impatiently. "He's embittered, then, this Yegor—is that it?"
"Yes. He cursed some children who came up the stairs, and struck out at them with his fists. Whereas Roman—the children seemed to love him."
"Bitter, and resembling Pyotr," Maxim said thoughtfully. "I see, I see."
Again Evelina hesitated, but finally went on—faintly, as though at the cost of painful inner struggle:
"In feature, they weren't really alike at all. It was more a likeness of expression. Until they met, it seems to me, Pyotr had more the look of Roman. But now it's more and more the look of that Yegor. And then, you see, what I'm afraid of is ... I mean, I begin to think...."
"What is it you're afraid of, my dear child? My clever child? Come here to me."
Maxim spoke with a tenderness so unusual in him that the tears sprang to Evelina's eyes. He lifted a hand to stroke her silky hair.
"What is it you think, then, child? Tell me your thoughts. For you can think—I see that now."
"I think ... I think he feels, now, that anyone born blind is bound to be ill-natured. And he's persuaded himself, I'm afraid, that he must be so too, that there's no escaping it."
"So. I see." Maxim's caressing hand dropped heavily to his knee. "Get me my pipe, will you, my dear? There it is, on the window-sill."
Soon a blue cloud of tobacco-smoke began to form around him, and through the smoke his voice came, grumbling to himself.
So. So. No, that was no good at all.... He had been wrong; his sister had been right. People could really yearn and suffer for lack of things they had never in their lives experienced. And now that instinct had been reinforced by conscious realisation, both would keep working in the same direction. What an unfortunate encounter! Though after all, as the saying goes, the truth will always out—if not one way, then another.
He could hardly be seen, now, for the swirling smoke. New thoughts and new decisions were ripening in his square-hewn head.