Vladimir korolenko the blind musician



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VI


Pyotr's mood was changing, his deep, but quiet melancholy giving way to fits of nervous irritability. At the same time, his remarkable delicacy of sense perception was noticeably increasing. His keen hearing became keener still; and his whole being responded to the stimulus of light—responded even in the evening hours. He always knew whether the night was dark or moonlit; and often, after all the family had gone to bed, he would walk about the manor grounds for hours, sunk in wordless melancholy, yielding himself to the mysterious influence of the moon's dreamy, fantastic light. Always, at such times, his pale face would turn to follow the fiery globe in its passage across the sky; and its cold beams would be reflected in his eyes.

But when the moon began to set, growing steadily larger as it approached the earth; when in the end, heavily veiled in crimson mist, it slowly sank beyond the snowy horizon, a softer, more peaceful look would come into his face, and he would turn back to the house and go indoors.

What occupied his thoughts those long nights, it would be hard to say. To all who have tasted of the joys and the torment of knowledge and of understanding, there comes at a certain age—to some in greater, to some in lesser degree—a period of spiritual crisis. Pausing at the threshold of life's activities, people look about them, attempting each to understand his place in Nature, his own significance, his relations with the outer world. This is a difficult time, and he is fortunate whose vitality is of such sweeping power as to carry him through it without violent upheaval. For Pyotr, too, there was this added difficulty, that to the universal query—"What do we live for?" he must add his own: "What, being blind, do I live for?" And again, thrusting in upon the very process of such sombre reflection, there was another factor: the all but physical pressure of a need that could not be satisfied. And all this had its effect upon his character.

The Yaskulskys got back shortly before Christmas. Evelina ran at once to the manor, and burst into the drawing-room, bubbling over with excited joy, to throw her arms around Anna Mikhailovna, and Pyotr, and Maxim. Snow sparkled in her hair, and a gust of frosty freshness came with her into the room. Pyotr's face lit up, at first, with the sudden happiness of her coming; but it soon darkened again, in almost deliberate melancholy.

"I suppose you think I love you," he said gruffly, that same day, when he and Evelina were alone together.

"I'm sure of it," she returned.

"Well, but I'm not sure of it at all," he declared morosely. "No, not at all. I used to think I loved you more than anything on earth. Only now I'm not sure I do at all. You'd do best to drop me, before it's too late, and follow the voices that call you away, out into life."

"Why must you torment me so?"

The gentle reproach broke out against her will.

"Torment you?" Again that look of deliberate, selfish melancholy came to his face. "Yes, so I do. Torment you. And I'll go on tormenting you, all the rest of my life. I can't possibly not torment you. I didn't know, before. But now I know. And it's no fault of mine. The hand that took away my sight, even before I was born—that same hand put this ill nature into me. We're all of us like that—all of us, born blind. You'd do best to drop me—yes, all of you, turn away from me, because I can only return you suffering for your love. I want to see. Can't you understand? I want to see, and 1 can't rid myself of that want. If I could only see Mother, and Father, and you, and Maxim—if I could see you once, I'd be satisfied. I'd remember. I'd have that memory to carry with me through the darkness, all the years to come."

Again and again, with remarkable persistency, he returned to this idea. When he was alone, he would pick up now one object, now another, and examine it with infinite care—then, laying it aside, sit pondering over the qualities that he had found in it. He pondered, too, over those distinctions which he was able faintly to perceive, through the medium of touch, between bright surfaces of different colours. But it was only as differences, as comparatives, void of all concrete sense significance, that all these things could reach his receptive centres. Even a sunlit day, now, differed to him from dark night only in this—that the brilliant daylight, penetrating by mysterious, untraceable channels to his brain, intensified his painful seekings.




VII


Coming into the drawing-room, one day, Maxim found Pyotr and Evelina there. Evelina seemed upset, and Pyotr's face was gloomy. He seemed to feel an organic need, nowadays, to search out new and ever new sources of suffering with which to torment both himself and others.



"He keeps asking," Evelina told Maxim, "what people mean when they talk of the bells 'ringing red'.* And I can't seem to explain it properly." [ Red ringing—a term used in Russian in speaking of the pealing of church bells on a holiday.]

"What's the trouble, then?" Maxim asked Pyotr curtly.

Pyotr shrugged.

"Nothing in particular. Only—if sounds have colour, and I can't see it, why, that means I can't perceive even sound in all its fullness."

"You're talking childish nonsense," Maxim returned, sharply now. "You know perfectly well that's not true. Your perception of sound is fuller than ours by far."

"Well, but what do people mean, then, when they say that? There must be some meaning to it."

Maxim thought a moment.

"It's just a comparison," he answered finally. "Sound is motion, if you get down to it, and so is light. And that being so, of course, they're bound to have certain traits in common."

"What traits, then?" Pyotr persisted. "This 'red' ringing—what's it like?"

Again Maxim stopped to think before answering.

He might go into the science of vibration. But that, he realised, could not satisfy the question in Pyotr's mind. And, too, whoever it was that had first described sounds by adjectives of light and colour had probably had no knowledge of the physical nature of either; yet, clearly, he had felt a resemblance. What resemblance?

A new idea began to take shape in Maxim's mind.

"I don't know whether I can make it altogether clear to you," he said. "But anyway—this 'red' ringing, to start with. You've heard it time and again, in the city, on church holidays, and you know it just as well as I do. It's simply that the expression isn't used in our parts."

"Wait! Wait a minute!"

Hastily, Pyotr threw open the piano and began to play. Against a background of a few low tones, his skilful fingers set the higher notes, more vivid and mobile, leaping and skipping in endless permutations; and the room echoed to just that joyous, high-pitched clamour of bells that fills the air on a church holiday.

"There!" Maxim said. "That's very like. And none of us could master it better than you have, though we do have eyes to see. Well, and anything red that I may look at, if it has a large enough surface, affects me in much the same way as this 'red' ringing. There's the same feeling of restlessness, of a sort of resilient agitation. The very redness seems to be always changing. The depth, the intensity of the colour slip into the background; and on the surface, now here, now there, you seem to catch fleeting glimpses of lighter tones, swiftly rising and as swiftly disappearing. And all this affects the eyes very powerfully—my eyes, at any rate."

"How true, how true!" Evelina broke in excitedly. "I get exactly the same feeling. I can never look long at our red table-cloth."

"Nor can some people endure the holiday bells. Yes, I believe I'm right in drawing such a parallel. And while we're at it, the comparison can be carried further. There's another sort of chiming, that people often call 'crimson'. And there's a colour, too, a shade of red, that's called by that same name—'crimson'. Both the sound and the colour are very close to red, only—deeper, milder, more even. Sleigh bells, carriage bells—while they're still new, their tinkling is liable to be sharp, uneven, unpleasant to the ear; but when they've been long in use they 'ring into their own', as lovers of their music put it, and attain this 'crimson' chime. With church chimes, too, you can get the same effect by skilful combination of several of the smaller bells."

Pyotr began to play again—the merry jingle of bells as the post speeds by.

"No," Maxim said. "I should call that too red."

"Oh! I know now."

And the music became more even. Sinking from the high pitch at which it had begun, so vivid and lively, it grew gradually softer, lower, deeper. Now it was the chiming of a set of bells hung under the bow of a Russian troika, speeding away down a dusty road into the distant evening haze—quiet, even, marred by no sudden janglings; fainter and fainter, until the last notes died away in the calm stillness of the countryside.

"That's it!" Maxim said. "You've grasped the difference perfectly. Yes—your mother tried, once, to explain colour to you by means of sound. You were only a youngster then."

"I remember that. Why did you make us give it up? Perhaps I might have learned to understand."

"No," Maxim returned slowly. "Nothing could have come of that. Though it does seem to me that, if you get down deep enough inside us, the effects produced by sound impressions and by colour impressions are really very much alike. We may say of a person, for instance, that he sees the world through rose-coloured spectacles. By that we mean that he is buoyantly, optimistically inclined. Much the same mood can be induced by the right choice of sound impressions. Both sound and colour, I should say, serve as symbols for the same inner impulses."

Maxim paused to light his pipe, watching Pyotr closely as he puffed. Pyotr sat very still, clearly waiting eagerly. For a moment, Maxim hesitated. Ought he to go on? But the thought passed, and he began again, slowly, abstractedly, as though carried on independently of his will by the strange current his thoughts had taken.

"And, you know—the queerest thoughts come to my mind. Is it mere chance, say, that our blood is red? Because, you see, whenever an idea takes shape in your brain; or when you have those dreams of yours, that set you shivering after you wake, and force the tears to your eyes; or when a man seems all ablaze with passion—at all such times, the blood comes pulsing faster from the heart, racing up in glowing streams to the brain. Well, and—it's red, our blood."

"It's red, our blood," Pyotr repeated musingly. "Red, and hot."

"Yes. Red, and hot. And so, you see—the colour red, and the sounds we may also call 'red', bring us brightness, animation. They bring, too, the conception of passion, which people also call 'hot', and 'fiery', and 'seething'. And another interesting thing: artists often speak of reddish tones as tones of warmth."

Maxim puffed awhile at his pipe, surrounding himself with blue clouds of smoke.

"If you swing your arm up over your head and down again," he continued, "you'll describe a more or less limited semicircle. Well, then, try to imagine your arm much longer—infinitely long. Then, if you could swing it so, you'd be describing a semicircle infinitely far away. That's where we see the vault of the skies above us. Infinitely far away. A vast hemisphere, even and endless and blue. When it has that aspect, our spirit is calm, unclouded. But when the sky is overcast with clouds—shifting, uneasy, of undefined and changing outline—then our spiritual calm, too, is broken by a feeling of indefinable unrest. You feel that, don't you, when a storm-cloud is approaching?"

"Yes. Something seems to disturb my very soul."

"Exactly. And so we wait for the deep blue to show again, from behind the clouds. The storm passes, but the blue sky remains. We know that well, and so we can endure the storm. There, then: the sky is blue. And the sea, when it's calm. Your mother's eyes are blue, and so are Evelina's."

"Like the sky!" Pyotr said, with sudden tenderness. "Like the sky. Blue eyes are considered a sign of spiritual clarity. And now, take green. The soil, of itself, is black. And the tree-trunks, in early spring, are black too, or sometimes grey. But then the spring sun sends down its light and heat, and warms these dark surfaces. And the green comes creeping out to cover the blackness. Green grass, green leaves. They must have light and warmth, these green growths; but not too much light, or too much warmth. That's what makes green things so pleasant to the eye. Greenness—it's warmth intermingled with a dewy coolness. It arouses a feeling of tranquil satisfaction, of health—but not by any means of passion; not of the state that people call joyous rapture. Have I made it at all clear to you?"

"N-no, not very. But go on, anyway. Please."

"Well, there's no helping it, I suppose. Let's go on, then. As the summer heat increases, the green growths seem overburdened, as it were, with the very fullness of their vital powers. The leaves begin to droop. And if the heat isn't tempered by the cool damp of rain, the green colour may fade entirely. But then, as autumn draws on, the fruit takes shape, gleaming daily redder among the weary foliage. The fruit is reddest on the side where it receives most light. It seems to concentrate within itself all the vital force, all the summer passion of growing things. So that here too, as you see, red is the colour of passion. And it's used as the symbol of passion. Red is the colour of rapture, of sin, of fury, of wrath and vengeance. The great masses of the people, when they rise in revolt, seek to express the feeling that moves them in the red of their banner, carried like wind-tossed flame over their march. But—again, I haven't made it clear."

"That doesn't matter. Go on."

"Late autumn. The fruit has matured. It falls from the tree, lies helpless on the ground. It dies, yes, but the seed within it lives; and within this seed, potentially, the new plant already lives, with its luxuriant new leafage, and its new fruit to come. The seed has fallen to the ground. And over it, the sun hangs low and cold. And cold winds blow, driving cold clouds before them. Not only passion—all of life is gently, imperceptibly stilled. More and more, the black earth shows bare through its green coverings. The very blue of the sky turns cold. And then, one day, the snow-flakes in their millions come floating down over this subdued and quiet, this widowed earth. And soon the earth lies smooth, and white, and even. White—that's the colour of the frosty snow; the colour of the loftiest of the clouds, floating up there in the chill, unattainable heights; the colour of the highest mountain peaks, majestic, but barren. White is the emblem of passionless purity, of cold, high sanctity, the emblem of a future life of the spirit, incorporeal. As to black..."

"That I know," Pyotr broke in. "No sound, no movement. Night."

"Yes, and for that reason black is the emblem of grief and death."

Pyotr shuddered.

"Death!" he repeated dully. "You said it yourself. Death. And for me, all the world is black. Always, everywhere."

"That's not true," Maxim returned heatedly. "You know sound, and warmth, and movement. You live among loving friends. There are many who would give up their gift of sight for the blessings you so unreasonably despise. But you're too full of your own selfish grief..."

"And if I am?" Pyotr's voice was tense with passion. "Of course I'm full of it. How else? I can't get away from it. It's always with me."

"If you could get it into your head that there are troubles in the world a hundred times worse than yours; if you could realise that this life you lead, the security, the love you've always enjoyed—that in comparison with such troubles your life is very heaven, why..."

"No, no!" Pyotr broke in wrathfully, on the same high, passionate note as before. "That isn't true! I'd change around with the most miserable beggar, because he's happier than me. All this solicitude for the blind—there's no sense in it at all. It's a great mistake. The blind—they should be put out on the roads and left there, to beg their living. Yes, I'd be happier if I were a beggar. When I woke in the morning, I'd have my dinner to think of. I'd keep counting the coppers that were given me, and I'd have the worry, always—would there be enough? And then, if there was enough, I'd have that to be happy about. And then there would be the night's lodging to worry over. And if I didn't get enough coppers, I'd suffer with hunger and cold. And with all that I'd never have an empty moment, and ... well, and no hardship could ever make me suffer as I suffer now."

"Couldn't it, then?"

Maxim's voice was cold. Evelina, pale and subdued, saw his eyes turn to her in a look of sympathy and deep concern.

"No, never. I'm convinced of that," Pyotr returned stubbornly, with a new harshness in his tone. "I often envy Yegor now, up in his belfry. Waking up, in the early morning, I think of him—especially if it's a windy, snowy day. I think of him, climbing the belfry stairs..."

"In the cold," Maxim put in.

"Yes, in the cold. He shivers, and coughs. And over and over he curses Father Pamfili, because he won't get him a warm coat for the winter. And then he takes hold of the bell ropes, though his hands are so freezing cold, and rings the bells for morning service. And he forgets he's blind. Because anyone would feel the cold, up there, blind or not. But me—I can't forget I'm blind, and..."

"And you've no one to curse for anything."

"Yes, I've no one to curse. There's nothing to fill my life, nothing but this blindness. There's no one I can blame for it, of course, but—any beggar's happier than me."

"Perhaps he is," Maxim said coldly. "I won't argue about that. In any case, if life had been harder on you, perhaps you'd be easier to live with."

And, with another pitying glance at Evelina, he took up his crutches and stumped heavily out of the room.

Pyotr's spiritual unrest intensified after this talk, and he was absorbed more and more in his agonising mental labour.

There were moments of success, when his groping spirit stumbled upon the sensations Maxim had described to him, and they merged with his own space impressions. The earth stretched, dark .and melancholy, away and away into the distance. He tried to survey it all, but it had no end. And over it hung another infinitude. Memory brought back the roll of thunder, and with it a feeling of breadth, of vastness. The thunder would pass, but something would remain, up there—something that filled the soul with a sensation of majesty and serenity. At times this feeling would achieve almost concrete definition—at the sound of Evelina's voice, or his mother's; for were not their eyes "like the sky"? But then abruptly—destroyed by too great definition—the concept that had been rising, seeking shape, from the far depths of his imagination would disappear.

They tormented him, all these dim imaginings; and they brought no shade of satisfaction. He pursued them with such straining effort—yet they remained always so obscure, bringing him nothing but disappointment. They could not assuage the dull ache that accompanied the painful seekings of his afflicted spirit, its vain strivings to regain the fullness of perception life had denied it.





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