The Duchess of Banford and her two children were driving toward their villa, when, owing to the roughness of the road, the front wheel of their coach was suddenly broken. Considerably frightened, mother and children quickly alighted. The approaching darkness, coupled with the loneliness of the place, added to the difficulty; for the prospect of spending the night in the woods was particularly distressing.
Just then a stable-boy chanced along and seeing the predicament, said: "Oh, that wheel can be easily mended. Not far from here there lives a wheelwright, and I am sure he can repair it in a very short time." The boy then looked about him, and seeing a long pole, said: "We can use this to support the wagon as it drags along. The road is rugged, and it will take us about an hour to get there."
"Is there no shorter route?" inquired the Duchess.
"This is the only wagon road; but if you wish, I will lead you along a shorter path across the fields which will cut the distance in half."
The Duchess thanked him, and asked: "Do you think that we may take this pole? It seems to me as though some wood-cutter had left it here to prop a tree."
"Oh, yes," he answered, "it belongs to the wheelwright to whom I am taking you. All the wood around here belongs to him, and he will be glad to have this pole so handy." So saying, he hurried to get the pole and helped the coachman fasten it in place. The horses then drew the carriage slowly over the rocky road, while the coachman walked alongside.
The family, however, followed the footpath, which led between tall elms and blooming shrubbery along the edge of a babbling brook.
The silence was broken now and then by the plaintive song of a nightingale. The Duchess and her two children seated themselves upon the trunk of a fallen tree and listened to the music till it ceased. A gentle wind sighed softly through the leaves of the trees, and merrily flowed the near-by brook. As the nightingale repeated its song, they all listened intently.
When the song was ended, the Duchess said: "I would give twenty pounds if I had such a bird in my garden. I have heard many nightingales sing in the city, but here in the country, in this wooded region and deep stillness, and at this twilight hour, its song seems doubly enchanting. Oh, that I might hear it sing in the little bower near my villa."
"Hm," whispered the stable-boy, who stood near her oldest son, Alfred, "those twenty pounds could be easily earned."
Alfred nodded, and motioned to the boy to be still, for just then the nightingale began to sing. When the song ceased the Duchess arose to continue her way. Alfred, however, lagged behind with the stable-boy, with whom he was soon busily engaged in earnest talk.
"A nightingale in a cage is not what my mother wants; what she wants is a nightingale that is at liberty, to sing and nest and fly as it pleases in our beautiful garden, and to return to us in the spring from its winter home."
"I understand very well what you mean. I should not want to catch a bird and deliver it into captivity." After questioning Alfred more closely about the trees near his villa, the boy said: "I feel sure that I can get a nightingale and its nest for you. I know just how to go about it. You will soon hear its song resound from all parts of your garden— possibly not this week, but surely next."
Alfred stood still for a moment and looked at the boy—clothed in a shabby suit, with his hair protruding from his torn hat. Then he asked, wonderingly, "What would you do with the money?"
"Oh," said the boy, and the tears stood in his eyes, "twenty pounds would help us out of our troubles. You see, my father is a day-laborer. He is not a very strong man, and I was just on my way to visit him, and do what I could to help him. My foreman has given me a few days' leave of absence. I don't earn much, but it helps my father a little. I often feel that it would be a great help to him if I could earn more. I certainly should like nothing better than to be a wheelwright. It must be grand to be able to take the wood that lies here in the forest, and make a beautiful carriage out of it, like the one you own. I have often talked with the wheelwright, but he will not take me as an apprentice until I have a certain amount of money. Besides, I should need money to buy tools. It would cost twenty pounds, and my father and I haven't as much as that together.
"Poor boy," thought Alfred, "if what he says is true, we must help him." Then he said aloud, "Bring me a written recommendation from your school-master; and if the wheelwright really wants to take you, I will give you ten pounds as soon as the nightingale sings in our garden; and I know that the missing ten pounds will soon be forthcoming. But you must say nothing about this to anyone until my mother's wish is gratified. I should like to give her an unexpected pleasure."
Soon they struck the main road again, and the rest of the distance was quickly covered.
While the wheelwright was repairing the carriage, Alfred engaged him in conversation concerning the stable-boy, all of whose statements the man corroborated. He also showed a willingness to apprentice the boy on the terms stated.
The damage had now been repaired, so the Duchess paid the charges, giving the stable-boy a few coins, and seated herself in the carriage with her children.
After whispering a few words to the boy, to tell him how to reach the villa, Alfred joined his mother and sister, and with tooting of horns they proceeded on their journey in high spirits.
The little stable-boy, Michael Warden, hurried on to his sick father. It was late, and the journey would take him two hours. On his way he stopped to buy a few delicacies for his father with the coins the Duchess had given him. To his surprise, he found on arrival that his father was very much improved.
Before daybreak on the following morning, Michael hurried to the woods to find the nightingale's nest he knew so well. When he had last visited it, he had seen five brownish-green eggs there. But as he now peered into it he found, to his great astonishment, that the young birds had broken through their shells. With all haste he set out for the villa, several miles distant, to study the situation and decide where he could best fasten the nest. Arriving there, he found a suitable place, and then hurried back to the woods.
In the course of a few days, he succeeded in caging the parent birds. Placing the nest beside them in the cage, he carried it to the garden of the Duchess. He arrived there toward evening, and was hospitably received by the gardener, who had been fully acquainted with the idea.
Adjoining the villa was a large tract of land, well wooded, which was beautifully laid out with garden plots, pebbly, shaded paths, vine-covered bowers and rustic seats. In one corner of the garden there stood an odd little thatch-covered arbor, nestling between high rocks in the shadow of the tall trees. A brook which fell in foaming whiteness flowed past this little nook, clear as crystal, and made the stillness fascinating by its intermittent murmuring. This spot the Duchess loved well, and many hours of the day she spent here.
Scarcely a hundred feet distant, there stood a willow tree closely resembling the late home of the caged nightingales. The boy had chosen this tree and had prepared a place for the nest on a forked branch. He went there late one evening, as the moon was shining brightly, and placed the nest securely on this tree; then he gave the parent birds their freedom.
The next morning, the boy returned to the spot and hid himself in the thick shrubbery, to see whether the birds would feed their young, who were loudly crying for food. In a little while the parent birds returned and fed them.
"Now I have triumphed," said Michael; and he hurried to the villa to carry to Alfred the welcome news that in a few days the nightingales would be singing their song in his garden.
"Fine," said Alfred, "and then the money will be yours. Stay a few days longer and you can take it with you."
Two days later, the Duchess invited her friends to a lawn-party. The sun had risen in all its glory, the sky was unclouded, and the breezes were light and refreshing. The garden, with all its natural beauty, afforded a most entrancing spot for the feast, which proved perfect in every detail and was enjoyed in full measure.
After the guests had departed, the Duchess said to her children, "Let us spend this delightful twilight hour here in quiet. My soul is satisfied; for what can compare with this blessed evening hour? What comparison can there be between the grandeur of our salon and the beauty of nature?"
Just then the nightingale broke the stillness with its ecstatic song. The Duchess was surprised, and listened intently until the song was ended.
"I wonder how this nightingale came to my garden. The oldest residents cannot remember ever having heard one in this region."
"Dear mother," said Alfred, "you often wished that a nightingale would lend its song and its presence to grace this beautiful spot. The same boy who assisted us out of a difficulty recently, helped me gratify your wish. You remember, dear mother, that you said at that time: 'I would give twenty pounds to have a nightingale in my garden.' That boy has helped us please you, and we have paid him half this amount out of our savings. The boy is worthy of the money, and it may be the foundation of his future success."
"You have acted nobly," said the Duchess. "I am transported with ecstasy at hearing the nightingale sing for the first time in my garden, and also at the love which you have shown for your mother. It moves me still more, however, when I think that my children possess a heart big enough to part with money intended for their own use, and voluntarily give it up to afford help and joy to others. I, too, will reward the boy generously. I wonder what use he would make of the money."
"We could not give the money to a more worthy person," said Alfred, who then related to his mother the boy's aspirations. "Besides, I have written to his teacher, and this is what he says about him: 'A greater deed of charity you could not perform than to help Michael Warden carry out his desire to learn a trade. He is a clever, ingenious boy, and would learn quickly. I think he would like best to be a wheelwright, and I would suggest that you apprentice him with the master in our village.' So you see, mother, the money would not be spent in vain."
"Very well, the money shall be his."
On the following morning, Alfred sent for Michael, and counted out to him the money, increasing it to fifty pounds. Michael's astonishment almost carried him off his feet, and he thanked Alfred profusely for the extra money. He hurried home to his father and laid his wealth before him on the table. The old man stared at it in blank amazement, and said: "My boy, I hope you have not stolen this money!"
"No, father, but a little bird in the forest helped me," and Michael related the incident.
His father, overjoyed, now made all preparations for Michael's outfit. He then conducted him to the master wheelwright, paid the stipulated sum and entered him as an apprentice. At the end of three years, the boy was as accomplished in his trade as his master.
Before starting out into the world, Michael returned to the Castle of Banford to tell of his progress, and once more thank the Duchess and her children for their kindness to him. They praised him heartily for the strides he had made. The Duchess then gave him another gift of money for his journey, and said: "Success be yours. We must never do good by halves; the sapling that we plant we should also water." Then with many encouraging remarks, the Banfords bade him good-bye.
Touched by their interest and charity, Michael was so stupefied that he could scarcely speak. When he recovered his self-control, he thanked them all, and promised faithfully to do his best and always remember their good advice.
Alfred Banford had always been kind to the poor and dutiful and affectionate to his mother. Suddenly he was seized with patriotic fervor. For some time he had nursed the desire to be a soldier. At the age of seventeen, he studied the art of warfare at a military academy. He surprised all the officers with his military genius.
The Duchess, too, loved her fatherland, and at last she tearfully recognized that she must give up her son to fight in defense of his country.
"Go, then," said she, "fight for the right and your country; and may God protect you."
Alfred fought valiantly and well, and at last was forced to proceed with the great French army against Russia. On the way to Moscow the ranks were greatly depleted, owing to the long, wearisome marches and privations. After untold hardships and bloodshed, the army at last reached Moscow, with her many palaces and temples and spires and the old palace, the Kremlin. It was a pleasing picture. Alfred, like every other soldier, now hoped to recuperate from the hardships of warfare. But he found the city uninhabited, the streets deserted, the palaces and houses empty.
At midnight, a dreadful fire which had been smoldering for several days, broke out in wild fury and laid the greater part of the city in ashes. The army was obliged to retreat; and many thousand brave soldiers, exposed to snow and ice, hunger and cold, met a horrible death. One single freezing night killed thousands of horses, Alfred's among them. He was obliged to walk knee deep in icy water.
They traversed miles and miles of country without passing one hut; and when in the distance a human habitation appeared and gave promise of warmth and food, they found upon approach that it was deserted and devoid of everything.
The poor, miserable, weakened soldiers were obliged to spend many a weary night on the snow-covered ground, with no roof but the sky. The need of food became more and more imperative each moment; yet if they had had the wealth of kings, they could not have bought a dry crust of bread; so they were reduced to the extremity of eating the flesh of their fallen horses. They quenched their thirst with snow.
The street upon which the greater part of the army had gathered was marked with deserted cannons and powder wagons; and on both sides lay the dead, upon whom the fast falling snow had spread a white coverlet. Many of the soldiers of Alfred's regiment had fallen, and lay frozen in the snow; others were scattered here and there.
Alfred and a chum, both in a weakened condition, tried to go on. They descried a little village, about half an hour distant; but before they reached it, Alfred had become so weak that he fell exhausted in the snow, saying: "Thus must I die here!" He extended his hand to his friend and with tears in his eyes said: "Should you ever reach the Castle of Banford, bear my love to my mother and sisters. Tell them that Alfred Banford fought bravely, and fell in the service of his country."
These words reached the ears of a Russian gentleman, Vosky by name, who in a rude sled was going in the direction of the village. He halted, offered his assistance to the two half-frozen men, helped them into the sleigh and hurried on with them. A few minutes' drive brought them to a little inn, half concealed by the drifted snow.
"He halted, offered his assistance to the two half-frozen men, helped them into the sleigh and hurried on with them."
The men were conducted into the house and furnished with food and warmth. The host asked them no questions, for he saw that they were benumbed and almost unconscious. At last, when they had recovered, he raised his glass and said: "To your health, gentlemen. All brave soldiers should live. I sympathize with you, although I am a Russian subject. The sad fate of your fellow soldiers pains me. I will do all in my power to help you. I know you are not our enemy. We have but one enemy—the man whose iron will has forced all these hundreds of thousands of men into our country." Then he arose and went about the place, giving orders to his assistant.
The sleigh still stood at the door, and the horses impatiently shook the sleigh bells and pawed the snow. As Vosky re-entered the room, his two guests had finished their repast.
"Now," said he, "let me conduct you to a room where you can rest and sleep, undisturbed and undiscovered." After climbing a ladder and walking through a narrow passage, they came to a secret door which opened into a bedroom. Alfred Banford looked about him, and was startled when he saw in a mirror the reflection of such a pale, hungry-looking visage and such tattered clothes.
Pity was plainly written in Vosky's kind face, but all he said was: "Stay here and recuperate. To my sorrow, I must leave you for a little while in order to transact some urgent business; but I will instruct my valet to provide you with every possible comfort. Everything in this house stands at your service."
Alfred Banford ventured to ask whether it would be perfectly safe to remain, for he feared that Russian soldiers might capture him and that he would be sent to Siberia.
"I give you my word," said Vosky. "You will be as safe here as the Czar is in his Castle. Give me your word of honor to remain until my return. I will then devise means to help you reach your country. But I must be off now. Take good care of yourselves." And hurriedly he closed the door behind him.
Alfred Banford marveled at the friendliness and goodness of this strange man who had come to his rescue so unexpectedly and so opportunely, like an angel from heaven. "It seems like awakening from a dream, to find myself transported from an icy field to a warm, cozy room," said he. "It borders on the miraculous—I cannot fathom it." But sleep was fast overpowering him. He had lain for so long on straw, on icy ground, and even in the snow, that it seemed as if he had never felt anything softer or warmer than this bed. He soon fell asleep and rested quietly and peacefully till the dawn.
On the following morning, at breakfast, Alfred Banford turned to the kind-hearted Russian servant, and said: "Do tell me what sort of man your master is, and what is his name?"
"He is a very good man," said the servant. "I can think of no one who is kindlier. His name is Vosky, the Czar's chief financial adviser, and he is particularly concerned with the care of the Russian army. He has always shown me great consideration, for I was only a poor beggar boy.
"One day one of Mr. Vosky's assistants lost a package containing some valuable papers and a large sum of money. It was extensively advertised. I fortunately found the package and brought it to Mr. Vosky, who was so pleased with my honesty that he offered me a home, had me trained for a commercial life, and now takes me with him on his journeys, partly as secretary and partly as valet.
"His home is in St. Petersburg. This house is only used as a stopping place when his business carries him to this region, which happens quite frequently. Before leaving yesterday, he gave me strict orders to look after your welfare. I trust you will be pleased with my efforts, and give Mr. Vosky a good report when he returns."
By slow degrees Alfred Banford recovered his strength. He found books with which to while away the time. The stillness of this secluded spot was a gratifying change from the noisy battlefield.
One night, Mr. Vosky returned. As he entered the house, his face shone with enthusiasm and gay spirits. "I come," said he, turning to Alfred, "to give you liberty after your long confinement. I stand at your service, and wish to do everything in my power to see you safely restored to your own country. I would suggest that you go with me to St. Petersburg; from there you can easily return to your own home by water. I should like to introduce you to my wife and children. Besides, I could not let you depart without suitable clothing, and I cannot provide you with that here."
"My good man," said Alfred, "your extraordinary kindness to me exceeds all measure. I cannot understand how I should merit such consideration from you."
"But," said Mr. Vosky, almost choked with emotion, "I find nothing extraordinary or bountiful in my acts. It is my duty, an act of gratitude."
"I fail to understand you," said Alfred. "I cannot remember the slightest favor that I have ever proffered you. I never saw you before, and what is more, I never heard of you in my life."
"Never?" cried Mr. Vosky. "Then listen to what I have to say. My entire fortune I owe to you. All my success I lay at your door."
Alfred looked at him in astonishment and shook his head.
"Did you never help a poor boy, by giving him fifty pounds?"
"Just now I don't remember ever having done any poor boy such a charity."
"Now," said Vosky, "perhaps you may remember a nightingale that you wished to have brought to your mother's garden. You will recall that poor stable-boy who managed it for you."
"Oh, yes," said Alfred, "I remember the boy very well. He was a poor, worthy, ambitious lad, named Michael Warden. The last I heard of him was when he went out into the world as a wheelwright, to make his fortune."
"So, you do remember him. Well, that boy Michael was none other than myself. Now I am the owner of a large factory, besides being financial adviser to the Czar. I had my name legally changed to Vosky. I was that stable-boy, that wheelwright."
"You!" cried Alfred, filled with admiration and astonishment. He sprang forward and embraced his benefactor. "But why didn't you tell me all this at first?"
"That was impossible," said Vosky. "It would have taken too long to explain; and my business affairs were so pressing, and you were so exhausted, that you could not have listened to a detailed account. I deferred it for a more quiet, restful time, when I could express to you my thanks. I saw that you did not recognize me, and I, too, would never have recognized you had you not said that day as you sank in the snow, 'Give my love to my mother and sisters and say that Alfred Banford fell in the service of his country.' Let us be thankful that we have been brought together, and that the opportunity has been afforded me to show you that I am not ungrateful. I cannot express to you the joy it gives me to see you, and to be able to serve you."
Mr. Vosky then related some of the events of his life. How he had visited the principal cities of Europe; and how he had studied under the best men, in order to make himself proficient in his line of work. Having heard that many Londoners were competing for the construction of carriages for Russia, he had hastily sent in his estimate. The work was accorded to him, and in a few years time he had amassed a large fortune. He had also opened a large wagon factory, and as soon as the war broke out with France, he had received orders from the Czar to supply the Russian army with additional powder wagons. The government had been as pleased with his promptness as with his honesty. Later, he had received the title of "Imperial Financial Adviser."
Alfred listened earnestly, and said: "God blessed you with excellent talents. Even as a child you showed genius. You certainly made good use of your gifts. I see from all that you have told me, that you were always ready to embrace an opportunity; that you worked with diligence, honesty and system, and that you began and ended all your work with an honest purpose. God, upon whom you relied, has blessed all your undertakings."
"That is true," said Mr. Vosky. "The fortune which I have accumulated gives me pleasure; for with it I can help the needy. Many a poor lad, like myself, have I (in memory of my own childhood) taken by the hand and helped to become a man of standing in the world."
Mr. Vosky became silent, and after a long pause said, "I sorely regret that my poor father did not live, to see how valuable was the good training which he gave me, and that I was not permitted to make some return to him for his love and devotion."
On the following day, Mr. Vosky and his guests started on their journey to St. Petersburg. The route lay along a beautiful section of the country; and so, with entertaining conversation, they reached their destination before they had expected.
Mr. Vosky's home was a beautiful place. His family came forward with warm greetings, and were introduced to Alfred Banford. The children could hardly understand how any man who looked so shabby and worn could ever have been their father's benefactor. The father, however, explained to them that the trials and tribulations of warfare, through which Alfred had passed, accounted for his appearance; and they were moved to sympathy for his sufferings.
Mr. Vosky had his tailor furnish Alfred with a complete outfit, suitable to his station.
Alfred remained with the Vosky family until the following spring, when they escorted him to the wharf. Mr. Vosky gave him a large roll of bills, for which Alfred thanked him, and said: "I will send you a check for this amount as soon as I reach home."
"Oh, no," said Mr. Vosky; "rather give the money to some poor boy. What we give to the poor always returns to us."
With many adieus and handshakes, Alfred departed; and the Vosky family continued waving their handkerchiefs until the vessel was lost to view.