Zaluz̓í was included in the patronage of the estate of Labutín, about five or six miles distant, and was the worst living in the whole of that extensive domain. Since the days of the Bohemian revolution Labutín had belonged to the noble family of Poc̓ernický of Poc̓ernic, who lived out here their good and evil days as time rolled on. This family was not distinguished for anything, except that they managed their estate well; that they generally had but few scions of their noble race; and that—as their dependents used to say maliciously—the lords had to wear the petticoats, while their ladies wore the breeches! This was certainly remarkably true of the last proprietor of Labutín, the late Baron Edmund Christian. He left behind him an able successor in his son Edmund, who at the time of Father Cvok was a little more than twenty-six years of age; but the real distress and absolute reigning power was his lady-mother, “Salomena, Milada, Baroness Poc̓ernická of Poc̓ernic and of Labutín.”
The old Baroness Salomena was a character in every respect. Her pen she wielded like a man, and in the affairs of everyday life she was more versed, experienced, and energetic than a dozen ordinary men. She did not rouble herself much either with her own heart or with hose of other people—she had no time for it; and, in short, to use her own expression, she was not “made of soft dough.” In money matters and all sorts of business concerns she was as sharp as a needle. No steward was ever born yet who could have swindled her out of a bushel of corn; or if perhaps he succeeded once in doing so, he would certainly never be able to manage it a second time, for she would have dismissed him on the spot. From break of day till nightfall baroness Salomena was on her feet. There was not a nail in a wicket-gate on her wide domains unknown to her, and, as might have been expected, the consequence of all this active and judicious oversight was that the estate was in a most flourishing condition, and abundance prevailed everywhere; debts were unknown, and the rich dowry of nany thousand florins of the young Baroness Sály, the second child of the old Baroness Salomena, had been well secured in good and safe investments long before anybody could have thought of her marrying.
Besides all this, the Baroness Salomena was very strict in the matter of morals; she was ostentatiously pious, and she certainly sometimes did good deeds, but always “to be seen of men;” for it must be confessed that she “loved the praise of men.” Another strongly marked feature in her character, which indeed may be said to have towered above all the rest, was an overbearing, atristocratic pride. Whenever she spoke to any one not of noble birth, however high his position or distinction, she always did so with such an obvious effort of condescension, that the person so addressed was sure to turn iway disgusted, or with a smile of ridicule. Yet with all these objectionable qualities she had some good points, too . She had not a vestige of that feminine vanity which is the curse of so many of her sex; and her word was sure—she was never known to go back from it. She would rather have had her thumb cut off than waver one inch from her promise once given.
The whole household at Labutín Castle was just a reflection of the baroness’s character. Nowhere and in nothing could one find simplicity, uprightness, and natural bearing; but everywhere and in everything constraint stiffness, conventionality.
Baron Edmund, or, as he was mostly called from the example given by his mother, “Baron Mundy,” the chief person in the house next to her, though not unconscious of his own importance, stood in great fear of his mother; as did also his young sister, the Baroness Salomena, or Sály, just ripening into womanhood, and as did all the servants, high and low, the number of whom, from economical reasons, was not very large.
Baron Mundy was a gay, pleasure-loving man, who did not look upon life through punctilious glasses; but before his mother, or within her sphere, the mercury of his ardent, youthful liberalism sank below the freezing-point. To make up for this he let the reins loose, and threw of constraint, whenever he was beyond the reach of his mother’s eyes—and that was pretty often.
The management of the extensive estate kept the mother so busy, that she sometimes forgot to manage her children. Besides, she was firmly convinced that she had educated and brought them up in such a manner as rendered it quite impossible for them ever to break loose from the constraints which she imposed.
Baroness Sály took more after her mother; but as she felt no filial love for her, and as the natural development of both head and heart had been stunted , she could not ripen into a lovable or independent character. Besides, the thoughts and longings of her maidenly heart drew her, by the law of nature, away from Labutín Castle into the regions of rosy dreams and hopes.
When her French governess had finished her education under the eye and supervision of her mother, the baroness thought it necessary to find a companion for her, who would be at the same time her lady’s-maid. She searched and inquired in different directions, but it was not easy to combine these two functions in one person.
The poverty-stricken applicants who looked for service and bread in aristocratic families were either tolerably fit to be companions, or suitable for the post of lady’s-maid. Some had their heads crammed, perhaps, with literary and social knowledge, or they knew how to sew decently, to wash and iron the lady’s fine things, and to dress her hair tastefully; but to perform both kinds of duties for very modest wages, they did not choose to do.
At last a person was found whom the baroness thought she could take on trial. “Of course,” she calculated, “if she does not do in the end, it will be a pity to have paid the travelling expenses here and back; but that can’t be helped.”
The baroness had all the testimonials of the applicant placed before her, and scrutinized them for a whole evening with the eye of a detective. The name of the applicant was Jenny Kučerová; she was the daughter of a Government official, who was a widower, and had, besides Jenny, five other children unprovided for, and possessed almost no private property. “She belongs to a poor family, and may perhaps suit well,” the baroness said to herself.
Jenny Kuc̓erová had accomplished her twenty-first year just a week ago. Her school education was, according to her testimonials, most satisfactory and complete. She excelled in all kinds of sewing and fancy-work, played the piano and sang, spoke French fluently, and after leaving school had been for three years governess and teacher of three small children in the family of a Prague merchant. During these three years she had fulfilled her duties uninterruptedly to the entire satisfaction of the family, and all for the modest sum of twenty florins a month. Her New Year’s gift had been the amount of a month’s salary, and on her nameday she had been given a new woollen dress. This was all the means of income she possessed. Her morals were blame less, her “exterior” agreeable, her conversation pleasant, her disposition lively, but steady and sensible. She was not forward, nor given to dress or flirtation; but she sometimes knew how to carry her own point. To the lower servants she always behaved with dignity, to her employers most respectfully. As a particular characteristic, she was eagerly fond of solid reading.
Two things out of all these references were not to the liking of the Baroness Salomena regarding Jenny Kuc̓erová. One was, that she sometimes knew how to carry her own point; the other, that she would probably turn out a sort of bluestocking or philosopher. The first she considered altogether improper and unfit in a serving person; and as to female philosophers, she had felt a disgust to them all her life. And another thing—Jenny Kučerová seemed to her to be too young for a companion, and the “agreeable exterior” was also somewhat against her. Both the baroness and her daughter were plain, and this may have been the reason that the old lady did not like to see handsome people about her. Besides, in this case she must be on her guard and very careful with regard to Baron Mundy; for such a poverty stricken person with a pretty face is able sometimes, with her abominable artfulness, to turn young aristocratic heads! And there have been cases where very nasty disagreeables have arisen in noble families from such intrigues. So it is well to be cautious in time.
Still, after all, when everything had been taken into consideration, there seemed nothing for it but to write for Jenny Kuc̓erová to Prague, because the Baroness Sály could not in any decency be left longer without a companion. So the third day after this a letter went from Labutín, and in three days more a satisfactory answer arrived from Prague. For the same salary as she had received in the merchant’s family, Jenny Kuc̓erová accepted the situation of companion and lady’s-maid to the Baroness Salomena Poc̓ernická of Poc̓ernic and Labutín. The same evening the old baroness formally announced this event at table, not forgetting to add that the “young person” was only coming to begin with for a month’s trial.
Baroness Sály pretended to look pleased, and thanked her lady-mother politely for the constant care she was devoting to her; but the young baron only gave a careless yawn, because he remarked that his mother’s hawk-like eye was fastened on him, to see how he would receive the announcement about the new companion.
That was on a Friday. The next Sunday towards noon, the baroness’s confidential lacquey, the sly cunning Ferdinand, brought Jenny Kuc̓erová in a carriage to Labutín. After a little while he entered the baroness’s writing-room to report about his expedition. Baroness Salomena, sitting at her writing-table, heard him silently, and then asked carelessly—
“What did you talk about on the way?”
“Not a word, your ladyship,” said Ferdinand, meekly. “If I might take the liberty of saying so, I fancy the lady-companion is a little proud.”
“It is well,” the baroness replied. “In twenty minutes or so, when the young lady has rested a little, she may appear.”
”The old lady then buried herself in a milk-account from one of her farms, and laboured for a good while trying to find out how she could force the buyer to pay a few florins more in the month.
“The young lady, the companion,” announced Ferdinand, moving the portière.
The baroness waved her hand. With a light but assured step Jenny Kuc̓erová entered the room.