As sometimes a beauty, before going to bed, stands before her looking-glass and arrays herself in her rarest jewels, so on this day did Nature deck herself out for her evening rest. The sun, descending majestically from the blue heavens above to the horizon, shone with gorgeous splendour. The windows of the church glowed like flames of fire, and the verdant tree-tops were tinged with gold. The reeds in the pond, which was about a quarter of an hour’s walk from Suchdol, seemed bathed in molten gold; while a delicate haze spread like a thin veil over the fields and meadows.
Though driven on by fear and presentiments of coming trouble, our friend Cvok yet came to a standstill every now and then to refresh himself with a look at Nature’s charms.
Young Kozman, tired from his long run, was left a good way behind, though he did his best to keep up with his reverence. After crossing the brook and climbing the slope, Cvok stood still—this time for a little longer—and looked about him. He had a sharp eye, but he could not see the least vestige or reflection of fire in the direction of Záluz̓í. A weight fell from his mind, but for all that the nearer he came to the village the more he felt the painful uncertainty about what “dreadfully particular” thing could have happened during his absence. And though he thought and thought till his dear, good head was quite bewildered, he could not think of anything substantial, or at all likely to have taken place. Already his quiet, peaceful village lay before him; already he distinguished in the evening haze the not over beauteous outlines of the poor church, of the high cross in the churchyard, and of his own modest dwelling. He did not remark any particular stir anywhere, nor any suspicious sounds, besides the well-known lowing of cows which came from different quarters.
What could have happened in his dwelling?
Cvok went on to the wicket-gate, and turning the handle, stood still for a moment; then, as if he had made up his mind, quickly hastened up the few steps to the door, entered the hall, and went into the parlour, which was on the left. It was half dark already, and there, in the spacious room, was spinster Naninka walking up and down, crooning a low song with her cracked-old voice, and holding some longish white bundle in her arms. At that moment, too, a baby’s cry was heard to come from the bundle. A real baby’s cry, and no mistake! Cvok seemed to see everything twirling round before his eyes.
“I am glad you are come, reverend sir,” said spinster Naninka in a hushed voice. “I am no longer able to keep this little worm quiet. It is crying with hunger, poor little thing! I must go and warm some milk for it. There, take and nurse it a little while, till I get the milk ready. You had better croon a bit to keep it quiet; I’ll be back in a jiffy. Don’t jerk it about too much; that is not good for it.”
While she spoke , she thrust the white bundle into his arms, and ran to the kitchen. Friend Cvok, nearly out of his mind, walked to the window with the baby, and did all Miss Naninka had told him; but still the baby cried—cried worse than ever: The poor priest tried all he could to pacify it, till he was bathed in perspiration himself from his exertions. While all this crying went on, he was not able to bring the swarm of thoughts that crowded his bewildered brain into anything like order. At last the baby got somewhat quieter, and the thoughts of Cvok began to return home.
“Heavens!” he exclaimed to himself, “this is a nice piece of work for me! If anybody could make a picture of me nursing a baby, what a sight it would be!”
Any further cogitations were interrupted for this time by Naninka coming back into the parlour. In her right hand she held a candle, in the left a little pan of milk, and in her toothless mouth a teaspoon. How she ever managed to open or shut the door is a mystery. She put the things she brought upon the table, threw down some books from the first chair she could find, looked for a footstool somewhere in a corner, and, having thus prepared a comfortable seat for herself, she took the baby silently from the priest’s arms, and sat down with it at the table to feed it. Cvok planted himself beside her, with his hat on his head, which he had not remembered yet to take off, and with folded arms looked on curiously at all these famous preparations and doings.
The baby was hungry, and took the milk quite well from the spoon, without any spluttering.
“This must be some ravenous boy,” Naninka began.
“But you know how to feed it, apparently, “interrupted Cvok, smiling.
“No wonder either! It’s not the first time——”
Miss Naninka stopped short suddenly, and grew slightly red. Good-natured Cvok took no notice of this, and looked with pleasure to see with what a good appetite the baby drank.
“Now it has enough,” Naninka began again. “Now it will sleep.” Then she began to hum a lullaby gently.
The priest still stood on the same spot, as if he was rooted to it . He did not once take his eyes off the child. After a while he whispered—
“Is it asleep?”
“Now tell me at last how you came by the baby.”
“How I came by it?”
“Yes; I want to know how it ever got into this clerical house?”
“How else—but by God’s providence!”
“But what on earth are we to do with it? We two have little enough to live upon, not to mention another.”
“As the good God has entrusted us with the care of this little immortal creature, we won’t begin to calculate first what we are to do with it.”
Cvok felt his eyes grow moist. He patted Naninka’s bony arm and said heartily, “Bravo, Naninka; your words are like gold! We’ll give care to the winds, like the puffs of smoke from a pipe! I’ll gladly eat a little less every day that the child may have its fill, and sleep as beautifully as it does now. Look how it smiles and sometimes half opens its little eyes!”
“That is because its guardian angel is whispering to it . And with its little eye it sees a treasure, only it cannot tell anybody about it,” Naninka explained.
“What poetry!” cried Cvok, rubbing his hands with pleasure.
“But now it is time for me to tell you how we came by this forlorn little being.”
“That’s just what I want to know,” said the priest; and taking off his hat and coat, and putting on his old dressing-gown, he sat down at the table and listened with eagerness to what Naninka had to tell.
“When I had put away all the things after dinner,” she began, “I went out to the churchyard and sat on the stone near the church—you know, there under the elder bush, where I’d like some day to be buried. The May sun warmed my old bones so beautifully that I even forgot my beads. How long I sat there I don’t know myself—time passes so quickly in the sunshine. Then I went home to look after the hens. Ah! now I remember—the clock here was just striking four. I go to the kitchen, open the window, and put my bed-things upon it to air; and then it seemed to me as if I heard a baby’s wail from the garden. At first I didn’t take any notice; but when it was repeated several times, I said to myself, ‘Wait a bit; you’ll just go into the garden and see who is there with a baby.’ But I looked and looked till my eyes ached, and found nothing. There, in the corner a little from my window, under the hazel bush, I hear a baby’s cry again. ‘Goodness me!’ I say to myself, ‘how ever did a baby get there?’ How could it ever come into my head that any one would put a strange child into our garden? Since Záluz̓í has been in existence, nothing like it has ever happened. I have heard many a story about such things, it’s true, but no one ever believes them; and, besides, a priest’s house is a sort of sacred place. I followed the sound of the cry, and there, sure enough, just under the hazel bush, there was the baby nicely made up in a little white pillow-bed. It is about eight weeks old. Under its head there was a parcel neatly sewed up in black oilcloth, and sealed with red wax. What was I to do? First I thought to leave the baby where it was, and run to the warden as the official person, and bring him into the garden; but the world is wicked, and farmers are a long way off from the angels; so I decided to take the baby into the house, and to send for you to come home immediately, that we might advise about the matter thoroughly before we do anything. The baby grew quiet in my arms, and fell asleep in my bed, where I made a nice soft place for it. The black parcel I locked up in my trunk; such things are safest under lock and key.”
“You did well,” said the priest, approvingly. “And did you not look about the house, to find out if any strange person was to be seen?”
“I did not; I was afraid to leave the baby. What if the poor thing had been dying?”
“After a good while I stepped out of the house, and just saw young Frank Kozman going by. I sent him after you at once to Suchdol. In the mean time I gave the baby some milk, when it woke. That’s all I know.”
The priest tapped his fingers on the book lying before him, and whistled softly. He was in the habit of doing this when thinking deeply. Naninka observed, after a while, “The baby is growing restless; I must change its things. But with what?—that is the question. Put those books away from the table, and light the lamp, that we may see this Godsend more thoroughly. Perhaps we shall find something that will be well to know for the future. You have good eyes; we must take notice of every thread.”
Father Cvok did as he was bid, and even cautiously let down the window-blinds, though this was unnecessary, his house being at a little distance from the village, standing alone on higher ground, and having a garden under both windows, fenced in by a wooden paling.
Naninka laid the foundling on the table, and opening its clothes with an experienced hand, spoke on with occasional interruptions. “It is the child of some gentle folk. I thought so immediately. It wasn’t from want that its mother put it away. This linen is as fine as cambric. Aha! look what a good guess I made. Sure enough it is a boy, and no mistake, and as fine a little fellow as could be found. Now kick away with arms and legs; so—that’s it, my birdie. Stretch yourself again, do. He’s as straight as an arrow. There’s nothing at all among the linens, not a line. Stop! here’s something fastened to a cord round its neck—a gold medal, with the Virgin Mary on one side; I can’t see well what’s on the other.”
“It’s a monogram—‘Maria’”
“Now we’re as wise as we were before. Who knows but there may be something sewed up in the little bed?” Naninka felt it all over with her hard-worked hand. “No, there’s nothing in it but feathers, ”she said. Cvok reminded her that there was still the parcel to be examined.
“That’s true,” said Naninka; “I’ll run for it. Stand here, your reverence, near the baby, for fear it should fall from the table. But we must cover it with something.”
The priest took off his old dressing-gown and spread it over the infant boy, who turned his bright eyes towards him. Black eyes they were; and he kicked and poked with his little fists and legs in true baby-fashion under the gown.
In the mean time Naninka came back with the parcel. It was not large, but pretty heavy. The priest went to the lamp with it and scrutinized it carefully, especially the seal, which bore the impression of a lady’s ring, with the letters “J. K.”
Cvok’s hands trembled, his brow grew moist, his breathing short and laboured. Naninka never took her eyes off him, and was burning with curiosity. As he did not open the parcel quickly enough for her, she said, “Do you want a pair of scissors?”
Cvok did not answer her, but took a penknife out of his pocket, and began to rip the seam, which was firmly sewed. When he had ripped it, he opened the wrapper of new black oilcloth, and saw that the contents of the parcel were rolled up in another cover of finely embroidered white linen. He opened this too, and found on the top of the contents a large letter sealed with the same seal.
The moment Cvok read the address on the letter he fell helplessly on the chair near him, and dropped his head and arms. Naninka did not utter a word.