"Heavens!"/Chapter 14

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XIV.

With his mother’s permission, Baron Mundy went for a few weeks before harvest-time to the north of Italy. This was only the second journey of any great length that he had ever taken, because Baroness Salomena did not favour travelling particularly, considering it, as she said, an expensive and superfluous matter of fashion. As for everything else, so here too she had a good reason ready at hand.

“People are the same everywhere,” she used to say; “the only difference is, that some of them speak Chinese, and others Turkish, or some other strange tongue. And as to scenery and landscapes, good stereoscopic pictures make up for them quite well.”

She certainly acknowledged that change of air and climate sometimes had a beneficial effect on people’s health; but this was the only advantage to be gained by travelling, in her opinion, and was the sole motive that prevailed with her in allowing her son to travel abroad on this occasion. She had remarked for several months that he was not quite as well as he always used to be, and that sometimes a deep melancholy seemed to oppress him, the cause of which she never imagined could lie in any mental trouble, but thought it only proceeded from some derangement of his physical health.

On returning from his travels, Baron Mundy had stopped in Prague to see Jenny. Her fate touched his heart more deeply than he himself could have thought possible, after the severe rebuff and defeat he had suffered at her hands for the way he had acted in the beginning of March, and which was only cursorily mentioned in Jenny’s letter to her friend Cvok, as we already know.

It had happened in this way. Some days after Jenny’s baby had first seen the light, Baron Edmund came to visit the young mother. Though he loved her deeply, he was still very much disturbed and cast down by the event. He had not merely promised Jenny that she, and only she, should be his wife; he had really meant it, and fully intended to keep his promise faithfully, like an honourable man; and Jenny herself believed him, and placed implicit confidence in his truth and given word.

But giving a promise and keeping it, is very often like to theory and practice; the former goes swiftly like the wind, while the latter toils slowly after like a heavy cart, and is generally left far behind.

Now when the decisive moment approached, the baron felt that he had undertaken a hard and difficult task, which it was impossible for him even to think of just at that time. He felt that he was by no means the energetic, reckless character he had considered himself to be when he beguiled Jenny’s heart, which, from being filled to overflowing with love for him, had lost the safeguard of common sense she generally possessed. Though he loved Jenny with his whole heart and soul, still he had neither the strength nor the energy in him to break through the wall of difficulties and conventional obstacles that surrounded him, with one heroic effort. He had never tasted as yet either the sweetness or bitterness of standing upon his own feet; always and in everything his mother had stood over him with a sure and steady hand, with a sharp and penetrating eye; ruling him with her naturally strong mind and her experienced common sense.

When he came to see Jenny, and, for the first time, to kiss his little son, he brought with him, instead of the sacred unalloyed joy of a father’s the consciousness of his weakness and culpable wavering; and yet he could not help himself, and thought he was acting for the time as he ought to do.

Jenny was sitting in a dressing-gown and cap on a sofa near the stove, with her baby in her arms, when he entered. She raised her eyes with natural pride and happiness to the husband of her heart, with a look which no poet or painter has ever yet been able to embody with either pen or pencil. The baron, too, forgot for a moment the indecision that troubled his heart, and, hastening to the languid mother, covered her hands, her brow, her eyes, her lips, with kisses; and took his child, who was sleeping the calm sweet sleep of infancy, into his arms.

For a good while he looked at the baby silently. A happy tear glistened in his eye. He kissed his little son’s cheek with fervent joy.

Blushing with happiness, Jenny did not take her eyes from his face. For some minutes neither of them spoke.

The baron recovered his calmness, but a deep sigh escaped from his depressed heart.

“You sigh, Edmund!” said Jenny, half reproachfully, half piteously.

A fresh sigh from the baron was the only answer. Jenny grew silent, and her eyes, that just now were shining with happiness, lost their brightness; the happy blush vanished from her cheek; anxious presentiments made her heart shrink, and she gave a shiver.

“Oh, how unhappy I am!” groaned the baron half aloud.

“Unhappy!” said Jenny. “And yet you have our child in your arms!”

The baron sat down without speaking on the nearest chair, still holding the baby in his arms. Jenny tried to break the silence.

“You seem very different, Mundy, from what you used to be, and from what I expected. God knows, I feel as if snow were falling into my heart!”

“Trust me!”

“I am not so weak-minded as not to trust you. But I certainly expected to hear words of comfort from your lips, to give me strength and courage; and instead of that, you have nothing for me at this sacred moment but ill-omened sighs.”

“I have very much on my mind to trouble me, Jenny,—very much.”

“Speak then; tell me all, candidly and openly. There could not be a more appropriate moment for a quiet earnest talk about our future than this.”

“Let us enjoy our baby now; we can settle all about the rest some other time.”

Jenny grew still paler. Her eye betrayed painful anxiety, and at the same time an icy decision.

“Perhaps I do not quite understand you,” she added after another silence.

“But you must allow of my insisting at this moment on my right to obtain—not partly, or by halves, but entirely--all that justly belongs to me by every law of God and nature. As long as only myself was concerned, you know very well that I did not lack patience or readiness to wait. But now it is different. With the child new duties have arisen, and I would be a bad mother indeed if I thought lightly of these duties, and was contented with your procrastination and indecision. Then, indeed, our connection would only deserve to end in the very same way as love intrigues between noblemen and burgher-girls generally do.”

“You are a little hysterical, Jenny,” said the baron very decidedly, trying to defend himself, “and I put it down to the illness you have just gone through safely. As yet I have not, I hope, deserved from you to be placed in the same category with frivolous, though noble, libertines.”

“As yet you did not deserve it,” Jenny replied, growing warm,“ but from your manner here to-day, and from what you have said, no unprejudiced listener could wonder that doubt and mistrust are awakened within me, and that I let you know it without any reserve. I long, Mundy, to have everything clear and plain between us, between a true, faithful husband and wife. From this standpoint I will not recede one step. And this very day, before you leave this room, I must have full certainty from you for myself and my child.”

“And if I, from reasons which are as well known to you as to me——

“Give me my child!” said Jenny, interrupting him hastily.

Half bashfully, almost shyly, the baron put his little son into her arms.

The mother folded the baby to her heart, held her right arm over it as if to protect it, and said firmly and decidedly—

“If you do not give me that certainty here, this very day, then you have held my child for the last time in your arms, you have kissed me for the last time, you have crossed my threshold for the last time to-day. Then I shall consider you a man who——

“Jenny!”

“Truth has sharp edges, Mundy, but it cannot cut an honest, honourable man. I ask you to answer my questions plainly and decisively. When will you have our union hallowed before the world by the Church?”

“As long as my mother lives it is impossible.”

“Your mother won’t die till she has united you to a woman of her own rank, who will be to her own liking, and whose character will give her a guarantee that after her death she will rule you as much as she herself has ruled you all your life. What will become of me and of my child in the mean time? Answer me that, if you are a man.”

“I am my own master. Nobody shall ever be my wife but yourself.”

“You are not your own master, because, when you ought to show that you are, you cower down behind your mother, and make your own fate and mine, and the future of our child, dependent on her will. And because you are not your own master, because you are not energetic character, capable of resisting the persuasions, reproaches, threats, and even, perhaps, intrigues of such an energetic, imperious autocrat as your mother is. I cannot be satisfied with your mere promise that you will take no one for your wife but me. I know the circumstances of your family as well as you do yourself. I l know what difficulties a public marriage with me would envolve you in; and therefore for your sake, and to spare you, I am willing to change my request so far, that I shall be satisfied if I am married to you privately in the mean time.”

“That is a romantic idea, and altogether impossible, because it is against the civil law of our country.”

“Then, if it is so, you shall go this very day to a public notary, and have a legal contract drawn up, signed by yourself and two witnesses, one of whom I shall choose myself. There you must set down that you consider our child your legitimate son, and that in three years hence you will make me your lawful wife, according to the manner prescribed by the laws of our country.”

“What you ask, Jenny, must be very well considered.”

“You refuse me?”

“Jenny, remember your state of health at present; you are exciting yourself too much.”

“Mundy, I repeat my request for the second time; a third time you may be sure I shall not repeat it. Will you bring me the contract this very day or not?”

“Be patient with me, Jenny. In time, when I know or a certainty that my word of honour is nothing to you, I shall perhaps give you awritten contract, such as is given to men of business.”

Very well, Baron Edmund—very well. I know now how it is with me, and I shall act accordingly. I give you back your gentleman’s word of honour as the empty bubble that it is. I tear you from my heart, because I can no longer respect, much less honour you. I release you from all duty to me and to this child. And now I must beg you to trouble me no longer with your presence.”

“Jenny, are you mad?”

Jenny stretched out her hand for the bell-handle.

The baron jumped up and, catching her hand, said—

“For God’s sake, don’t ring the bell!”

Jenny tore her hand from him as if a toad had touched her.

The baron poured forth a stream of words.

“Give me a few minutes; let me explain. You are not quite well yet—you are ill! What you have said just now cannot be seriously meant, and I attribute it more to your nerves, which have been shaken by pain and suffering, than to your real feelings. For God’s sake, consider. You are not quite yourself yet; you have to take care of yourself and of the child besides. You have neither father nor mother; you are quite alone in the world; you have no one to take care of you but me. Can you thrust me away from you so lightly? What would become of you without me, Jenny? I should be a scoundrel if I forsook you in difficulties and want, if I did what you bid me just now.”

“As to what will become of me and my child, that is now my own affair, Baron Edmund. I shall be able, to trust, to earn bread enough for us both, and I shall make a proper, honest man of my son. I shall not allow you to play the generous benefactor; I will accept no support from you. Look out for some other woman, who may perhaps be more grateful for your liberality.”

“Jenny, you hurt me cruelly! I see there is no use in talking to you to-day. I will go, and come another time. But I cannot leave you in want.”

Saying this, he took a note for a hundred florins from his pocket-book.

Jenny sprang up from her seat as if stung by a viper.

“Baron Edmund! I am an honest woman, though once betrayed by you, and I will not allow myself to be kept by you. I will have nothing to do with your money. Keep your Judas’ wages! We have done with each her for ever. Rest assured I shall never fall a burden on you!”

The baron turned away. He never knew how he got out of the room or the house. He wandered about the streets for some time, then he set out to look for a notary; but at the office door of one he paused. The aristocrat and the man began once more to wrestle within him. The aristocrat won the day. The baron did not enter the notary’s office. He took a cab and drove to the public garden of Ovenec, and drove about in the spring rain and sharp wind until his head had cooled down a little.

Twice again, before his mother and sister left Prague for Labutín, he went to see Jenny; but she, acting consistently with her firm resolve, did not receive him. He then tried to again access to her by writing; his letters were returned unopened. Vexed with himself, with Jenny, and with the whole world, he made up his mind at length to leave Prague, and returned to Labutín with his mother and sister, and a new companion of the latter, at the end of March.

When the cowslips began to blossom in the meadows, and the swallows came back from the South, his journey to Italy was decided on, and he set out shortly before his son was brought in such a romantic fashion to the priest’s house in Záluz̓í.