A firm upholder of the customs and traditions of his rank, Baron Mundy had, along with the faults common to all young noblemen, some of their better qualities also. He always observed, for instance, a certain degree of gentleness and an unassuming behaviour towards those with whom he came in contact, together with the forbearing delicacy and consideration of the stronger towards the weaker, of which a true nobleman is never devoid.
Even if he had not loved Jenny deeply, he would never have allowed her and his son to be exposed to the miserable cares and hardships of everyday life. True he had serious reason to be offended, for Jenny had wounded him to the quick, upbraiding him with low and unworthy intentions; but, in spite of all that, his innate feeling of delicate regard to the weak kept him above the slough of meanness and baseness into which an everyday man, with less considerate feelings, might have fallen. While on his travels abroad, his mind was almost constantly in Prague with Jenny and her child, and there was hardly a moment in which he did not feel a longing desire to have his old connection with her renewed, and a hope that from the dark clouds now hanging over him brighter sun of mutual understanding and happiness might shine forth for them both. He knew Jenny, and was well aware that she was of an energetic, decided character, not easily led, and hard to be curbed; but yet he excused himself for the way he had acted on the ground of necessity, and, thinking that Jenny, like every woman, did not act from strictly logical reasons, but let herself be carried away by the overpowering impulse of the moment, he indulged, as people of weak character will do, in fantastic dreams, and pursued them trustingly; and whenever he descended to the cold world of reality he was sure to find some rays of hope to bring warmth and life into it. As long as he remained at home, he practised the old hypocrisy before his mother, and thought that it was impossible for him to act otherwise.
The baroness was as yet completely in the dark about the love-affair of her son with her former companion, and did not trouble her head in the least with regard to Jenny’s having left her service, Jenny having told her, as an excuse for taking this step, that she was going to a much more lucrative situation.
For a long time the shrewd old baroness had remarked that a change, and not a trifling one either, had come over her son; but she thought the cause of it was to be traced back to the accident in the avenue, and to the illness that followed it. She had more than once consulted the castle doctor secretly on this subject, and she had no reason to distrust his opinion. He had satisfied her with the explanation that, according to the inscrutable laws of nature, a new epoch must have been inaugurated in the bodily and mental life of the baron by that accident; but that the change did not in the least impair his health, which the doctor pronounced to be not only good, but even excellent. Another celebrated Prague physician whom she consulted about the matter entirely agreed with his colleague in the country.
Jenny had told the young Baroness Sály, before she left, that she was going direct to Vienna, so she fell as completely into oblivion at the castle as if water had closed over her. In the mean time she moved secretly to Smíchov, a suburb of Prague, distant from the centre of the capital, where the baron had taken care to have comfortable lodgings provided for her. He came there occasionally to see her, but it did not escape her that soon some strange and undefinable change had taken place in his bearing towards her. This disturbed her so much, that she determined on seizing the very first opportunity that offered to obtain some certainty as to the future of herself and her child. This filled her mind so completely that she hardly thought of anything else, and, being of a strong and energetic nature, preferred knowing the worst at once from the baron’s own mouth, to remaining any longer in painful uncertainty. How matters turned out between them we already know.
The baron did not stand the test. Jenny condemned and repudiated him, and decided on taking up her burden and going through life alone, in dependence on her own strength of mind and will, rather than commit her fate and that of her beloved child to his wavering, dependent mind and unreliable character.
While he was abroad, Baron Mundy did not write to Jenny. He hoped and trusted that time, the great healer of all wounds, and the being left entirely to herself, would in the end bring her round, so that in a few weeks she would see the necessity of opening her mind to listen to the reasonings of common sense, and would change her opinion of him, if not altogether, at least considerably in his favour. Therefore he stopped in Prague, on his way back from Italy, to endeavour to see her, and to bring about a reconciliation between them. It was in the beginning of July. But of Jenny there was not a trace to be found. When he inquired privately of the proper authorities, all he was able to learn was that Jenny Kuc̓erová had left Prague at the end of May. Where she had gone to remained a mystery.
Under cover of some plausible excuse, he called at her aunt’s, Mrs. Knír̓ová’s; he even went to her native place to inquire of her relations; but they either did not know anything about her, or concealed the truth from him by her instructions. Jenny seemed for the present to have vanished from the earth.
Sinking more and more into melancholy, the baron as already on his way back to Labutín, when he met a forester from his estate at the railway station. Forester Chvojan was an old man already, and known for his ill will to the clergy in general. The baron spoke a few words to him unconcernedly, and, among other things, asked if there was any news at home. Chvojan twisted his long moustache self-complacently, and, winking his lynx’s eyes knowingly, gave the baron the following piquant piece of news:—
“Heavens in Záluz̓í has been blessed with an angel in waddling-clothes, of a few weeks old. They pretend to the people about that the baby-boy belongs to some relation of Naninka, the pious old spinster, who is so fond of snuff; but whoever believes that can swallow anything.” And he did not forget at the same time to add some ringing comments about priests in general.
Just at that moment the bell was rung for the starting of the train. The baron stepped out of the waiting-room and took his seat. There was only one other gentleman in his compartment, and he did not seem at all inclined to begin a conversation, so the baron had time to think over the news he had just heard from the forester; and the more he thought, the more wildly did the blood pulse through his brain and heart. He hardly knew Father Cvok, except as he had heard of him from Jenny, who always spoke of him in the highest term—as a man of uncommon learning, of pure principles, and noble efforts, rising far above the atmosphere of commonplace mediocrity; and he could not but feel respect for the man whom Jenny so highly honoured. This man had received into his house somebody’s baby—a boy, too! Was it possible that Jenny——
He did not venture to finish the sentence even in thought. The fear of his mother gave him a shiver, but only for the first moment; then his courage raised its head, and, like old Melnik wine, sent a warm glow through his heart, and opened a prospect of a happy future. Everything seemed to say that his supposition must be true; that Jenny, who from obstinacy and mistaken pride had gone out again into the world to earn her bread, must have confided her child to the good priest, to preserve her independence. If that were so—and the baron did not allow himself to doubt it—then the drama of his heart was not at an end; on the contrary, it had taken a turn which might prove not a little favourable.
“If I have her little son in my power,” he wound up thinking, “then I am the master and director of the whole future, in spite of Jenny.”
The locomotive gave a shrill whistle; the engine-driver slackened speed. The baron was almost at the last station. The train stopped. Not far from the small station-house a gig from the castle was waiting for him. He had a good hour’s drive before him still, and he was very glad of it, that he might have more time to collect his thoughts. It was in the afternoon, and the sun blazed fiercely; the crops in the elds were ripening beautifully, and the skylarks were singing in the heights above as loud and joyously as their little throats allowed them. The baron sat down in his gig, and drove, not over fast, along the dusty high-road. The way led by Suchdol. It was the very day that Father Cvok paid his visit to Ledecký.
Leaving Suchdol in a brown study, Father Cvok missed the footpath to Záluz̓í. It was no wonder, for that whole day he had not been himself. Father Neducha’s letter in the morning, the long explanation with Ledecký, and then the invitation after dinner from the old baroness to the latter to come to her for an important conversation, which he felt sure would only be about himself and Pepíc̓ek,--all this was a burden much too great for his strength. He came to a stop every few minutes, like an overburdened horse, and a wild storm of conflicting thoughts raged in his head. He followed Ledecký mentally into the business-room of that old Jezebel; and though he was not a man of very lively imagination, yet he could picture to himself how she, burning with rage, passed her verdict on him and little Pepíc̓ek, and how she perhaps even threatened him with the bishop; how she raged against Jenny, and swore she would set the police after her—in short, one frightful thought after another rose in his mind till it became like a dark torture-chamber of the Middle Ages. No wonder, then, that he went a roundabout way to his home on the high-road. He hardly knew where he was or what he was doing. Suddenly his troubled thoughts were interrupted by the rumbling of wheels coming from the opposite direction towards him. He moved mechanically out of the way to the right-hand side without even lifting his eyes to the conveyance, till, hearing it come to a standstill, he looked up involuntarily, and saw Baron Mundy getting out of the gig to meet him.
Father Cvok gave a tremendous start. He could not have been more frightened if a shot had been fired off at his ear.
“I am very glad indeed to meet you here, reverend sir,” said the baron, accosting him hurriedly. “Do you wait here, Francis,” he added in the same breath, turning to the footman; then taking Cvok’s arm, he led him away quickly in the direction of the railway station. “Just about the time I left home on my travels, towards the end of May,” the baron went on, lowering his voice, “somebody brought to your house, I believe, a strange child, a little boy of a few weeks old. Is the baby still with you, and is it well?”
“As sound as a fish,” replied the priest, all in a perspiration.
“I am glad to hear it. What did Jenny write to you?”
Cvok gave no answer.
“But she must have written to you. It is her child, and—why should I not tell you, you are an honourable man?—and mine.”
The priest felt as if he were on needles. Had it been possible, he would have bolted from the baron and taken to his heels; but Mundy stuck to him like a burr.
“Why don’t you answer me?” he said, growing impatient.
“I am extremely surprised, sir baron, Heavens began, trying to collect his senses to give a careful answer. You seem to be altogether under a mistake. There is an infant in my house, certainly; but it is the child of a poor workwoman, who is related to Naninka, my housekeeper.”
The baron looked at him very penetratingly. Large drops of sweat stood out on the brow of the poor story-teller. He could not for the world have lifted his eyes of the baron’s face.
“Why do you lower your eyes in such confusion?” urged the baron. “If what you tell me is true, then look me straight in the face, as one honest man does another.” A painful sigh escaped Father Cvok’s troubled breast.
“I would never have thought you capable of dealing in untruths,” said the baron, reproachfully. “You will have no success either in this line, reverend sir; for you are but a clumsy dissembler.”
Heavens trembled like a boy caught by the field-watcher in the act of picking peas in a strange field.
“What did Jenny write to you—what did she say?” repeated the baron, urgently.
“That is a secret, sir—a secret,” replied Father Cvok, trying to get himself out of the difficulty; “and I hope you will, as a gentleman, respect a secret.”
“You ought to have told me so at once, and I should certainly have been more moderate in my questions. A secret between you and Jenny must, of course, be respected. I am only glad that the little boy is well. What is his name?”
The baron started. “Why is he called Joseph?”
“That’s another secret.”
“Ah, well, this unfortunate secret! Come, let us go into the gig and drive to Zaluz̓í. I must see this child.
“That we cannot do, sir baron.”
“Who dares to prevent me?”
“I do, on account of the people. There are, as it is, such stories and such endless gossip afloat in the village and over the whole estate, that it would be a sin to add water to the mud. If anybody saw you go into my house. God only knows what might happen to poor, luckless Pepíc̓ek! Let us be careful, my dear baron, even from regard to your noble family. As it is, your gracious mother has got wind of the matter already, and at the very moment Father Ledecký is with her, whom she summoned from Suchdol to consult with him about it.
“Is it so? Then, alas! I must allow that you are right—at least, it would do no good if I went with you to Záluz̓í. In the mean time, the chief thing for me is to feel sure that the child is mine and Jenny’s. Give me that assurance, and I will not go with you to Záluz̓í.”
Again the priest gave no answer.
“Well, I forgot that you are bound to secrecy. But you will not break your vow by giving me an answer to this question: Is it true that the infant in your charge belongs to some poor workwoman?”
“It is not true.”
“I am satisfied with that—completely satisfied. Give me your hand, worthy, excellent man. Let me, by this warm shake, express my thanks, in the mean time. I hope to be able to show my gratitude more effectually at a future period, though I am convinced that a man of your character does a good deed only from the pleasure of doing good. Be kind enough to write to Jenny what I have said. I am just coming back from searching for her in Prague and in her native place—at all in vain. Now that our child is here, I feel more satisfied. Do not be afraid of my mother; if the worse come to the worst, I am here.”
“I am not afraid about myself, sir, but about Pepíc̓ek. For his sake be careful, and do not step beyond the bounds prescribed to you by your rank and family ties. I hope to God that sunshine will follow the rain, and ease come after trouble!”
“I shall remember your good advice, dear friend; but there are certain bounds—Let us part, however, for the present. Though I am not allowed to go to Záluz̓í this time, my heart at least, reverend sir, follows you here.”
They shook hands heartily, and parted in opposite directions.