Though Baroness Salomena’s time was chiefly taken up with cares relating to the management of the estate and the supervision of the officials and menials employer upon it, she still found time enough to devote now and then to a good deal of gossip. It was all the same to her if it concerned the officials themselves, or their wives and families, or the clergy, or even the farmers—with whom she had, in fact, nothing whatever to do. She never shut her ears to any news about them, following the principle that what was done in the households and private life of the people, was more instructive as to their character than their public doings. The worthy lady had even her secret agents and spies, who placed themselves readily at her service in these matters.
She was hardly come back from her winter sojourn in Prague—which luxury, by-the-by, she only indulged in generally about once in three years—when everything was faithfully reported to her that had taken place during her absence at the priest’s house in Záluz̓í. This gossip was a good deal enlarged and seasoned with all sorts of fictions; but whatever was added or enlarged was on the whole, put down to the account of Father Cvok, the informers being wise enough not even to breathe the name of Miss Jenny, fearing to touch upon the baroness’s own house and family, which she might have taken ill perhaps. But she was sharp enough, and at no loss for sense; and the fact that Jenny had frequently paid visits to Cvok at Záluz̓í awakened a swarm of thoughts in her and, which she dwelt upon and speculated over to herself in secret. But, having been away from the estate for several months, she was obliged to exert all her powers to get everything into train again, and to make so for whatever had been neglected during her absence; and so it happened that she did not trouble her head much about the Záluz̓í event for the first week. But her faithful menial Ferdinand, who had kept Miss Jenny all the time, as it were, in readiness behind the bush, thought would be well not to keep back his news any longer, lest somebody else might come before him, and deprive him of the priority. So one fine morning, when he saw that his gracious mistress had slept well, he told her delicately the piquant piece of news—that, according to the general opinion, Miss Jenny was the mother of the Záluz̓í foundling.
This news set the mind of the baroness on the alert at once. She felt plainly that her house had become, more or less, the subject of people’s talk in connection with this scandal; and something much worse also arose involuntarily before her mind’s eye—the fear that perhaps even her Mundy might get mixed up with the nasty gossip. She at once reviewed before her the whole period of Jenny’s stay in her house, and scrutinized mentally Baron Mundy’s bearing towards her during that time. But except the unlucky accident in the avenue, which had happened in her absence, she found nothing to lay hold of. She was aware that both had come into unusually close contact just at that time, but afterwards nothing suspicious had occurred between the two; and if Mundy was changed, it was only the consequence of his dangerous illness. The baroness, therefore, felt her mind quieted and relieved; but she determined, for all that, to inquire very particularly into the mysterious affair. She remembered Ledecký, and knew that Cvok was in the habit of visiting him pretty often. Besides Suchdol was in the immediate neighbourhood of Záluz̓í and spinster Regina was known to her as a very sharp-witted gossip. She hesitated for a day or two, and then made up her mind to send for Ledecký before Mundy returned from his travels. However, she was very near being too late in carrying out this plan, her son having written sooner than she expected, to say he would be home the very day his letter reached her.
On hearing this, she quickly sent off Ferdinand to Suchdol for Father Ledecký, who came, as we know, without delay. The baroness received him in her business-room very kindly, quite as if she considered him her equal. The sharp-sighted priest said to himself, “Beware, my dear, beware! Under this honeyed sweetness there is a sharp sting lurking, I’ll be bound!” He thanked her for the rare honour of having been invited by the baroness to come to see her, and only hoped he would be able to satisfy her ladyship in whatever matter she wished to consult him about; and then begged her to let him know her pleasure.
The baroness asked if he had no idea what it was that she wished to hear from his reliable lips.“
I have not the remotest idea,” answered Ledecký deliberately. “I just had a visit from my reverend colleague from Záluz̓í when Ferdinand came with your note, so I had not even time to think what the matter might be about.” The baroness knew already from Ferdinand that Heavens had been at Suchdol when he arrived there with her note, and she considered it open and straight forward of Ledecký not to make any secret of it.
“You have touched unawares upon the very person I wish to talk to you about,” said the baroness, “and I dare to say you will not wonder at it.”
She was silent for a moment. The priest pretended not to understand, and kept looking at her quietly, without moving an eyelash, waiting to hear what would follow.
“Father Cvok,” resumed the baroness, “received some weeks ago, I have been told, a completely strange baby into his house to take care of.”
“I beg your ladyship’s pardon for taking the liberty of making a slight correction,” said Ledecký in his turn. “It was not he, but his old housekeeper, that accepted the charge of a baby, and not an entirely strange one either, but the child of her sister’s daughter.”
“And do you, reverend sir, believe this story, which seems to have been made up clumsily enough for the ears of the country people?”
“I do believe it. Father Cvok is a simple-minded, honest man. From my long acquaintance with him I know him so well, that I can see to the very bottom of his heart, and I have no reason to doubt what I have neard from him with my own ears.”
“Not to-day; he told me about it some time ago.”
“And do you consider all the rest to be empty talk, without any foundation? Or is it possible that you did not hear any other commentaries on the affair?”
“I did hear them, your ladyship; my housekeeper Regina, informed me of the absurd reports.”
The baroness pricked up her ears. “I would be glad”, she said in a more lively tone , “if it were not too much trouble for you, to hear all the particulars of it.”
“From what I have heard, all the different versions of the story agree in naming Cvok as the father of the poor forlorn infant; while Miss Jenny, your late companion, is believed to be the mother of it.”
“And is there no other person, except the two just mentioned, mixed up in the gossip?”
“I think not; I have not heard any other person mentioned.”
“You did not hear anything said about my son?”
“Your ladyship! How could I?”
“Well, never mind that; let us rather come to the root of the matter for which I requested your revence to come here. I am a true daughter of our holy Mother Church, from which through many long centuries no scion of the ancient family of the Poc̓ernickýs of Poc̓ernic has ever been alienated. Though there are other ecclesiastic authorities constituted to watch over the behaviour of the lower clergy, still I, as a patroness, have the duty and the right on my estate to look carefully after everything that could in any way injure our holy faith, and to put a stop in time to any irregularities occurring, even before the proper Church authorities can take their measures. From motives of delicacy, I am not inclined to trouble the very reverend vicar in the mean time and therefore I ask your reverence to write to Father Cvok in my name, without delay, saying that I wish him decidedly to remove this infant from his house on the spot, and to give it in charge to some one at a distance—the farther away the better—so that it may be out of both sight and mind of the people here, and that the scandal has so frivolously raised may be put an end to. If he should object, or refuse to do so, tell him quite plainly that I shall observe no more consideration towards him, but shall take steps against him with the ecclesiastical authorities.”
Ledecký listened to the baroness as quietly as a statue, and even when she ceased speaking, he was in no hurry to answer. At last he began—
“I would not advise your ladyship to carry out this intention, even though it may spring from the very best motives. I am an experienced priest, and know what our rights are thoroughly. So does my colleague Cvok. It does not belong to the patron of a living to proceed against a duly appointed parish priest, as your ladyship has just proposed doing. That power is only in the hands of the Church authorities, and even they will not pronounce such a sentence till the questionable affair has been impartially inquired into and duly considered, and the inculpated person himself heard. I am quite sure that Father Cvok has all the necessary proofs and documents—as, for instance, the baptismal certificate of the child—in his possession, and will surely obtain justice from the authorities set over him. I have not the least doubt that he will come forth from any inquiries pure and uninjured, like gold, and that, instead of being blamed, he will be commended for having acted a godly, charitable part towards the forlorn, helpless child. If we—your ladyship, or I in your name—were to take such measures with him, we might involve ourselves in a very disagreeable lawsuit , which would probably cause us many an uncomfortable moment.”
The baroness turned pale, and stared at the speaker amazed; for any resistance to her will, from anybody whatever, was a thing quite unknown to her.
“I understand you, reverend sir,” she said, after a long silence. “I do not wish to press my desires upon you by any means, and withdraw my request at once. I shall myself act according as conscience tells me. Only give me your hand and word that you will keep secret what we have discussed here together.”
Ledecký shook hands with her lightly, and left the presence with a low bow. Just as he was leaving the court of the castle, Baron Mundy drove up in his gig.
The baroness began, contrary to all her usual habits, to pace up and down the room. She was disquieted, excited; the blood rushed to her temples and head. She had engaged in a duel with Ledecký, and had been defeated!
“One priest will not injure another,” she said to herself; “and when I mentioned Mundy to him, how he pretended to be astonished!”
”The baroness’s suspicion of her son increased rapidly. She sank involuntarily into her armchair at the writing-table. A giddiness she had never known before over-powered her; her head was heavy; there was a singing in her ears, and she saw rings and spots before her eyes. Her feet tingled with a strange sensation, and the anxiety she felt was such that perspiration burst out on her brow and temples.
Just then a servant entered and announced that the baron had arrived from his journey, and asked if he might be allowed to salute her ladyship. The baroness only nodded her head. In a minute or two Baron Mundy entered, kissed his mother, and, looking at her for a moment, said, “You don’t seem to be quite well, mother.”
“I don’t think I am quite myself to-day, dear Mundy; that it is only the heat that has knocked me up a little. It is quite unbearable to-day.”
“Did you send for the doctor?”
“What for? The evening coolness is near now, and will set me all right again.”
“I am so sorry, mother, to find you not well. I had no idea of anything being the matter, and have been looking forward so much to seeing you again, after many weeks of absence; and now I find you like this.”
The baroness fixed her eyes sharply upon her son, and said with particular stress and meaning, “That is just the fate of man, dear Mundy, that we imagine one another to be quite different from what we really are.”
Mundy changed colour slightly.
The baroness, who still kept her eyes fixed on him, saw it plainly. Then she said, “Perhaps you had better ring for a glass of fresh water for me.”