The eyes of the baroness took in Jenny’s appearance at first with equanimity; but her peace of mind was very soon ruffled with surprise. That was no mere “agreeable exterior”—words that in the description of a serving-girl generally mean to say, “She is not downright plain,” or, “There is nothing particularly disagreeable in her appearance.” But this young lady was not only “agreeable” to look at, she was actually handsome; one might even stretch a point and call her beautiful. She was small in stature, but her figure was charming, her eyes dark and expressive, and her mouth perfect, like one of those painted by Mánes. She wore her raven-black wavy hair cut short, and her hands and feet were aristocratically small. She was attired in a dark-green dress, very simple, but tasteful. She presented herself very modestly, and begged her ladyship the baroness to confer her kind favour upon her, as that was her first and chief desire on entering upon her duties in such a noble family.
The baroness bent her head theatrically, heard her to the end with condescension, and then paused a good while, after Jenny had ceased speaking, without making any reply. At first she merely exchanged some superficial phrases with her, and kept her standing a good while near the door before she allowed her to sit down, and even then, as if to excuse herself for permitting such a liberty to be taken in her presence, she said that very likely the young lady was tired after the fatiguing journey.
Miss Jenny sat down exactly in the manner of a lady at court in the presence of her queen, which the baroness observed with favour. She then began to spin out her discourse slowly, coldly, and decisively, enveloping the listener in an endless net of instructions. She told her item after item, what was expected from her, and what she must do if she wished to give satisfaction, as well as what she must not do if her stay at Labutín Castle was to be of duration, and useful and agreeable to both parties. Giving a description of her family and household, she made a longer pause when she came to Baron Mundy.
“Though I know from your references that you are of strict morals and of a good burgher family—had it been otherwise I should not have asked you to become the companion of my daughter—yet it will be as well for me to remind you at once that sometimes in aristocratic houses, between the dependent young females and the male members of the family, from youthful want of experience, intrigues of the heart are woven which cannot be permitted. That such affairs, in most cases, end in the ruin of the weaker side is perfectly clear. I must therefore warn you to beware of even the least approach of such a thing.”
Poor Jenny felt as if she was sitting on hot coals, and her head was quite bewildered from all the explanations. She knew some answer was expected from her, but somehow she felt as if she was choking, and quite unable to speak.
After a pretty long pause the baroness went on: “I take your silence as a dignified answer, and in your favour. I shall now introduce you to the young baroness and to my son.”
She rang the bell and gave Ferdinand the necessary orders. In another moment the young baron and his sister made their appearance by the opposite door. After the introductory words the young baroness shook hands with Miss Jenny; the baron merely bowed coldly. Sály then asked permission to take the young lady with her to her own room, and, her mother making no objection, the girls left the august presence.
“I am thinking of making some changes on one of the farms,” said the baroness to her son.“ Please sit down, Mundy, and let us talk them over and advise together.”
”The baron drew a chair to his mother’s writing-table, but only listened with indifference to what she put before him.
The first month of trial, and afterwards the whole of the first year, passed smoothly enough with Jenny at Labutín Castle. Though she had to suffer many petty disagreeables during the time, and to swallow many a bitter pill, still on the whole she was satisfied with her condition. The life in the merchant’s house in Prague had certainly been more agreeable, because it was heartier and more varied; but there was less work to do at Labutín, and of a much easier kind, and the salary was the same. The aristocratic noblesse, the measured stiffness, so void of heart or feeling, the polished formalities observed in every trifling thing, imposed, of course, a very great constraint on the poetical mind of the young girl; but being endowed with a good deal of common sense, and conscious of her dependent position, she naturedly made the best of everything, and found at last even some pleasure in her life.
In half a year she became so practised in conversation and general deportment, that if she had been allowed to dress like the young baroness, the most fastidious aristocrat would never have found out that she was not noble birth. In this respect even the old baroness was satisfied with her, though she did not let it appear either to Jenny herself or to anybody else.
With the young baroness Jenny knew pretty well how to get on. Sály did not exactly belong to the clever ones. She let herself be easily amused, and Jenny’s skill and taste in womanly finery were very welcome to the young lady’s love of dress and personal adornment. She never showed any open heartiness to her companion, but she was kind and affable to her in a certain prescribed measure; and though sometimes, when in a bad humour, she did not spare her, she was sure to come round again before long, seeing that Jenny took all she said good naturedly and in good part, and only asserted herself with a certain gentle propriety.
In this way, by degrees, the clever and circumspect companion got the upper hand over her ward and mistress, and ruled her unostentatiously. To keep on good terms with the old baroness was much harder piece of work. Knowing herself to be surrounded and watched by her servile creatures, Miss Jenny spread her sails to catch the winds coming from the direction of the great potentate. To the gentleness of the dove she joined the wisdom of the serpent, and so kept clear of trouble. It was not an agreeable situation by any means, but she was forced by the circumstances in which she was placed to adopt this line of conduct and it was perhaps a useful kind of training for the young girl’s mind. Obliged to weigh every word before uttering it, Jenny Kuc̓erová learned many a lesson of wisdom in this school of life. She never felt her dependent position so painfully as on her visits to the old baroness the first of every month, when she had to bring her the written receipts for her twenty florins’ salary. On those occasions she never failed to carry away some sharp thorns in her heart. But, if need be, even thorns can be got over!
Jenny’s intercourse with Baron Edmund was, during the first year, confined to the mere interchange of common politeness. They took no more notice of each other than as absolutely unavoidable, although it did not escape Jenny’s sharp eyes that in unwatched moments the baron had to constrain himself somewhat in order to keep ithin the strict bounds of cool conventionalism presribed and observed in the family.
This set Jenny thinking about him. That he was living under an unnatural pressure on the part of his mother, and that the gallant, proud young man suffered under his pressure, was to Miss Jenny beyond all doubt. That he did not emancipate himself from this yoke by his own forts she considered to be the hereditary fault of all the male descendants of the house of Poc̓ernický, and a very contemptible fault too. According to her independent, girlish mind, a strong, healthy, intelligent young man, of insignificant social position, should be of an entirely different stamp. Still, she could not be angry with Baron Mundy; she felt rather sorry for him.
It could not but happen that in the course of the year she overheard much gossip, and many a truth too, about the members of the Poc̓ernický family. But with regard the young Baron Edmund there was but one opinion; there were no unfavourable reports about him. All agreed in saying that not only under his mother’s eye, but at all times, his conduct and moral behaviour were quite unexceptionable. They even went further, and declared that in point of morals, if compared with other independent young nobles, Baron Mundy might be looked upon as a white raven.
True, his whole life was not spread out like a map for inspection; still, servants and underlings very seldom fail to find out any speck or mote that can cast the least shadow on their future master’s character. But not ever the tiny shadow of a mote did Jenny hear cast upon the baron’s relations with the fair sex.
All this increased her respect for the young man, but she pitied him at the same time for his dependent position with his mother. That he was, in fact, seldom absent from her thoughts, especially when she found herself alone, was perhaps as natural as that flowers appear in May.
Jenny had no intercourse beyond the castle, except with the families of such persons as were employed on the estate. Of the married ladies amongst them, the wife of the castle physician had, from the very first interested her the most. She was only a few years older than herself, was fairly well educated, and had simple charming manners. She could talk pleasantly without gossiping like the other ladies—a thing Jenny disliked in them particularly. The doctor himself did not talk much, but when he happened to be in the humour, his conversation was not without a racy wit.
At the doctor’s Jenny also became acquainted with the priest of Záluz̓í, or as he was nicknamed, “Heavens!” from his so frequently using this exclamation. She already had heard him spoken of by this name at the Castle, where he was sometimes mentioned in conversation. There he was considered to be a mere commonplace village priest, who differed in nothing from his clerical brethren except in his love for secular books; man who had a little smattering of French, and who was generally nicknamed “Heavens.” Jenny even knew already why he was called so.
“He is in the habit,” Baron Mundy once explained the ladies at dinner, “whenever anything gives him particular pleasure or surprise, of exclaiming loudly, ‘Heavens!’ But if he is angry, he never says this.” And, making a comical face, the baron began to mimic Cvok—“Heavens! what good soup! Heavens! what a fish! Heavens! what sauce! Heavens! what a roast! what good beer! what good wine!”
Everybody laughed except the old baroness, who sat as stiff and looked as stern as Polyhymnia herself, and said with great dignity “Those commonplace people always have some sort of a saying on the tip of their tongue to hide the emptiness of their heads. They have no thoughts of their own, and so make use of any words and phrases they can find.”
Miss Jenny could not help thinking of all the empty phrases she heard every day spoken by aristocratic lips; but she kept her own counsel and said nothing.
At the doctor’s she heard much more about Heavens; and, indeed, the good priest soon appeared to her in a very different light and character from what the castle descriptions of him had led her to expect, so that a very lively interest and deep sympathy were awakened within her towards him.
“Father Cvok is worthy of the highest respect,” the doctor’s wife once said to the companion, on a misty disagreeable afternoon in autumn.“ Even my husband who hardly ever opens his lips in praise of anybody except maybe once every leap year, says he is quite lost in Záluz̓í, and is as much thrown away there as a violet on a heap of rubbish.”
“Oh, please, do tell me more about him!” begged Jenny.
The two ladies sat down in a window-niche opposite each other, and the doctor’s wife, with her crochet-work in her hand, began in full stream.